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Q. Are drones here to stay?
The world is becoming awash with drones and the indications are that these are not only here to stay, but will spread, within militaries, in the commercial sphere, and for recreational uses. The questions are then what that world of drones looks like and how to craft it in ways that balance concerns about industrial capacity with those of safety, privacy, and international and regional security. The universe of possible applications, as earlier sections have indicated, is nearly endless, and observers are lining up to prognosticate about the direction drones will go.
Soon after Amazon revealed that it had requested to test drones for delivering packages, the Guardian crafted the following thought exercise to prompt readers to consider the future of drones:
It is Glastonbury 2024, and you've got a front-row spot for the headline act, the Rolling Stones, concluding their fifth farewell tour. You need a drink badly, so you get out your smartphone and dial up a drone, which within minutes delivers a plastic bottle from the bar a mile away.
Glastonbury, of course, is a major outdoor festival in the southwest of England, the English version of Woodstock. The vignette presents a scenario where obtaining a beverage while maintaining one's position can be a challenge—and the prospect of a drone delivery can seem quite appealing. The effort to deliver beer by drone has floundered in the United States, not just because of the prohibition against commercial drones but also the fundamental concerns about "possible careless and reckless operation, especially if someone on the ground is hurt by an object or objects falling from the UAVs," according to a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spokesman, a position that for the moment halts any potential deliveries of six-packs via drone.30
The idea, however, is not outside the realm of possibility. While some software applications such as Snapchat have been derided as a technology on which an economy cannot depend,31 the flipside may be that "hardware is becoming the new software,"32 and tech firms are now turning their eye away from software and toward hardware. The reason is that many of the world's most serious problems, which do not include rapid delivery of beer, can be addressed through innovation in hardware and not software. One San Francisco venture capital fund specializing in revolutionary technology adopted the saying: "we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters." Investments have increasingly flowed into hardware, whether small-scale nuclear reactors, 3D printers, and, yes, drones. Industrial and energy startups attracted $1.24 billion in venture capital for the first half of 2014, twice as much as compared to the same time a year earlier.33 Silicon Valley committed $95 million to drone startups between 2013 and 2014. One of these companies, Skydio, aims "to build true computer vision into drones, enabling them to navigate based not on GPS but on what they 'see.' "34 The company is the brainchild of a group of individuals who met at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and were part of the founding team of Google X's Project Wing. The technology would help drones "sense and avoid collisions," one of the key impediments to broader integration of commercial drones into the national airspace given the potential for drones to collide with manned aircraft.35 One of the cofounders explained that "the goal is to take something that normally costs $5,000 and sell it for $50." Lowering the cost of entry would lower the barriers for more individuals who are not willing to spend thousands of dollars on drone technology.36
The increased interest and development in hardware such as drones, however, will only be as fruitful as the regulatory environment allows it to become. Even hobbyist drones, not currently regulated when they fly under 400 ft., weigh less than 55 lb., and are not used for commercial purposes, have come under scrutiny. Exemplified by the security concerns elicited by a drone- enthusiast government bureaucrat landing a hobby drone on the lawn of the White House, both the government and populace seem increasingly leery of even small quadcopters carrying explosives and being used for terrorism or assassination.
The upshot may be self-regulation, in which drone producers themselves regulate how their drones can be used. The Chinese firm DJI, which has controlled more than 70% of the global market in consumer drones and is the producer of the Phantom that landed on the White House lawn, created a software update that prevents its drones from flying in particular areas (in this case the White House), which is referred to as geofencing. Already, DJI had added no-fly-zone firmware to its drones, whereby a flight within five miles of a major airport causes the maximum altitude of the aircraft to drop and the drone to land and then refuse to take off again. While some hobbyists were not pleased about the geofencing limitations, the firm itself has incentives to have their technology flown safely, as rampant, reckless use only intensifies interest in greater regulation, which would likely impede sales of drones.37
Beyond self-regulation, the federal government also appears to be interested in the regulation of this category of drones. In its November 2014 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking
(NPRM), the FAA announced a tentative set of regulations for all small unmanned aerial systems, including operating standards for model aircraft and low performance (e.g., toy) operations, to increase the safety and efficiency of the National Air Space (NAS). These proposed rules preceded the incident involving a toy drone on the White House but certainly speak to the concerns about how even small drones can have large impacts.38
The attention to small drones is consistent with increasing concern among the public about lightweight drones. In a January 2015 Reuters poll, about 73% of Americans expressed an interest in greater regulations for small, privately owned drones. Among those surveyed, 42% (a plurality) opposed private drone ownership altogether, 30% approved, and another 28% were unsure. This poll also preceded the incident involving the drone on the White House grounds.39 In a separate question within the same poll, 64% were opposed to their neighbor having a drone, though 68% of individuals were supportive of the police having drones for certain types of law enforcement.
Speaking to the concerns about privacy, the private sector has stepped in and established something akin to the "nocall list," but for drones. NoFlyZone is a company with whom individuals register their address and that in turn prohibits where private drones can fly. The company essentially operates a database that helps regulate where drones are used in part so that the public is more comfortable with private drones in ways that allows them to continue to develop without federally imposed prohibitions. Unlike the DJI firmware, which does not apply to drones already sold since these do not connect to the Internet, NoFlyZone enables a cloud-based system that makes partnership with drone operating system producers such as DroneDeploy and PixiePath attractive. As Atherton writes, "if NoFlyZone takes off, people can register to keep their homes free of hostile intruders," an "opt-i n alternative for individuals who wish to protect their own privacy, without the need for an FAA mandate."40
As these developments suggest, the technology has largely led the policy on drones. This is not entirely surprising since the technology has come of age in a short period of time, from just a blip on a development radar in the 1990s to the major feature of US counterterrorism strategy soon after the 9/11 attacks, and now one of the most sought-after holiday presents around. As the book has implied, the introduction of drones presents both opportunities and concerns, which helps sketch out the two possible future worlds. One future is a world in which individual concerns about safety and privacy prompt governments to impose strict regulations on commercial and individual applications. This would be a world with few drones and a failed prognostication about the ubiquity of drones, much as Back to the Future misread a future of flying cars. Another future is a world where individuals, industry, and government embrace the new technology and Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos will have been accurate in predicting that drones would be "as common as seeing a mail truck."41 One thing is for sure. Even if not ubiquitous, drones are here to stay.