Is the Drone's Potential Being Shot Down Too Fast?

Harvard Business Review

If you had a fleet of drones to call your own, what would you do with them? What problem would you use them to solve in whole new way? What existing solution-provider, in so doing, might you manage to obliterate?

The question is not just a flight of fancy. While military-grade Predator drones can cost as much as $4 million, it's already possible to buy one of a new generation of hobbyist aircraft — unmanned aircraft systems complete with cameras, GPS, infrared sensors, and microphones, all under the control of a smartphone or tablet — for less than $300. Not surprisingly, people are lining up to buy them. The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that, within a decade, private drones will constitute a $90 billion industry.

There is another reason, too, that the drone market is set to take off. Currently, according to FAA rules, noncommercial uses of drones are permitted only so long as they stay below 400 feet (the official designation of U.S. airspace) and are flown away from populated areas. Above 400 feet, only the government and specially-permitted drones are allowed. But that is about to change. In February, as part of an FAA spending bill, Congress ordered the agency to develop rules by 2015 that would allow military, commercial, and privately-owned drones to operate in U.S. airspace.

Thus, mass-market drones clearly hold potential for what Paul Nunes and I call "big bang disruption." This is a kind of innovation that, thanks to fast-evolving technology, arrives in the marketplace simultaneously better, cheaper, and more capable of improving than the existing alternatives. Just what current products and services will be disrupted by drone technology remains to be seen, although a few applications are easily predicted. In the realm of law enforcement, drones could offer better performance in search-and-rescue operations, riot suppression, traffic control, surveillance of suspects or fugitives, and in cases of emergencies, natural disasters, or kidnappings.

As George Mason University's Jerry Brito pointed out in a thoughtful essay last month, "Small drones are made from many of the same components as smartphones, and the economies of scale of that industry have driven the cost of gyroscopes, accelerometers, GPS chips, and CPUs to the ground. As a result," Brito writes, "the widespread use of drones in commerce is imminent — unless politicians overreact to the bad press."

That last phrase, of course, is a big "unless." The FAA's impending deadline has created panic among state and local governments, who are falling over each other to legislate who gets to use drones and for what purposes before the FAA rules are issued. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, thirty states have already passed or are considering restrictions on drones, if not outright bans.

Local authorities are getting in on the pre-regulation act as well. Recently, the town of Rancho Mirage, CA joined Charlottesville, VA, St. Bonifaciuis, MN, and Seattle, WA in considering or adopting local rules restricting or prohibiting drones in their respective communities. In Alameda County, near where I live, a public hearing on a plan by the sheriff to deploy drones for law enforcement quickly turned ugly. "We oppose the use of public resources to buy machines to surveil its citizens," one resident was quoted as saying. Another rejected just the potential use of drones by the police as "an assault on my community."

It's not surprising that potential private and law enforcement use of drones invokes intense emotional responses, including fears of an expanded police state with an "eye in the sky" and the further erosion of personal privacy. The Rancho Mirage ordinance, for example, had its origins when a private citizen saw a model drone flying over his backyard. He asked the operators to relocate their activities, and they did. But he wrote to his mayor the next day anyway.

The visceral objection we're seeing to drones is a great example of the "creepy response" I wrote about in a previous post. Novel uses of information technology often trigger deeply negative emotions, particularly among Americans. The truth is that we usually adjust to the new technology by coming to recognize that its benefits outweigh the costs. In the interim, however, the temptation to regulate it out of existence is hard to resist.

And of course, the use of the term "drone" doesn't help. Drones, like many of the most valuable innovations of the past century, began life as military technology, and have notably been used for targeted killings as part of the so-called "war on terror." Hobbyists have made a serious tactical error in adopting the same term for unmanned aircraft that, at least so far, have no weapons attached to them.

As understandable as the psychological response may be, however, there is a serious problem with the rush to regulate. Overreacting to fears of the unknown could prove disastrous to the development of technology with tremendous potential to benefit society. Drones could make safer and cheaper a number of essential activities that today require human pilots, and also make other activities possible that are today simply unfeasible. These include emergency transportation of supplies to remote areas, agricultural monitoring and maintenance, aerial photography and mapping, protection of wildlife from poachers, pipeline inspection — perhaps even local delivery.

As with any emerging, potentially revolutionary new technology, it is impossible to anticipate all the uses to which unmanned aircraft might be put once they reach mass markets. And therefore, it is hard to know whether existing laws are adequate to limit or ban the potentially destructive uses. Indeed, many of the local authorities considering drone legislation believe the FAA's current restrictions give them a rare opportunity to regulate before a dangerous new technology gets a chance to become mainstream. "We certainly want to get ahead of that curve before there are some abuses of that information," one Virginia legislator said.

As drones continue to become better, cheaper, and more useful, the legal debate is sure to heat up. But until and unless we get more evidence of what "abuses" will actually appear, drafting appropriate laws will be impossible. The mishmash of laws, restrictions, and bans add up to a response that is inefficient, imprecise, bound to cause collateral damage — and certainly not worthy of a drone.

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