Drones and “How to Think About” Technological Innovation


In February 2012, President Barack Obama signed the FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act, which “mandated incorporation of drones into national airspace” by 2015. Drones and other unmanned crafts have historically been used for a wide range of military operations, which has led to a perception of drones as mysterious, stealthy, robot-like weapons. Recently, there has also been a great deal of discussion surrounding the use of drones for business deliveries, as made famous by Amazon’s sensational proposal for 30-minute drone deliveries on 60 Minutes.

Suffice it to say, public perception of drones is dichotomous. In his 2013 publication “How to Think About Drones,” Barry Fagin of the Independence Institute invites us to take a more informed and objective view of this emerging technology, and to become familiar with “benign use of drones.” To further emphasize “benign use,” he makes a clear distinction between “weaponized” and unarmed drones, stating that “drone” refers to an unmanned, unarmed craft.

“Unmanned, unarmed craft” defines a few kinds of aircrafts, including model planes used for recreation. This means that there is no “hard and fast definition” for drones just yet, but they do boast a few distinctive features: a capacity for longer flights and superior task performance and data collection. They also allow for pre-programmed flights, flights controlled by a human navigator from longer distances than a model plane, and even the ability to communicate with other drones. In many regards, they are marvelous inventions with applications for public safety.

Fagin’s research mainly concerns Colorado, which features diverse geography, public and private land zoning, varyied population densities, and a wide range of political preferences. However, his understanding that there is no “one size fits all” approach is an important lesson to take away from his publication, and one that applies to many other areas of policy. He says, “like all technologies, [drones] run ahead of law and policy, and bring with them both risks and rewards.”

He recommends a few criteria for formulating drone policy:

  1. give bottom-up approaches a chance to emerge before mandating top-down;
  2. solicit input from all stakeholders;
  3. use existing common law and property rights framework whenever possible;
  4. make sure law enforcement and state offices are prepared;
  5. avoid knee-jerk reactions to either ban drones entirely or focus exclusively on safety;
  6. assign ownership or property rights to airspace.

It is true that there are risks, and crashes are very visible, dangerous, and distressing. This is a risk that is “seen.” But, as Fagin points out, there is also the risk of losing out on possible economic growth — the “unseen.” The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates a potential benefit of US$80 billion for the US economy over the next ten years. With no need for roads, rails, drivers, or pilots, drones require considerably less infrastructure and manpower than other forms of transport like trucks or trains. Japan and Canada have already put drones to use in crop dusting, eliminating the need for a plane.

Drones hold significant potential benefits for both the public and private sectors. Government agencies currently face a fairly straightforward certification process, for which they must request a Certification of Authorization (COA) and agree to fly under the terms stated. Potential benefits from drones include more cost-effective surveillance and search missions.

However, the private sector is not as fortunate. Fagin points out “tremendous barriers to entry” for the private sector, including a “Special Airworthiness Certificate – Experimental Category” (SAC-EC), which functions mostly as a research certification. It is exceptionally difficult to acquire certification at this point. Private interest in drone development has surpassed the research stage, as seen with Amazon’s 30-minute delivery idea, and even drone-driven pizza delivery.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon warns that until air regulations were certain and until drone technology had “matured” a bit, 30-minute drone delivery would remain a hopeful novelty. (Matt Burns at TechCrunch clarifies that Amazon isn’t responsible for starting the “drone-delivery revolution,” just for bringing the idea to public attention.)

Technological advancement can inspire curiosity, fear, and skepticism all at once, both with the public and with policymakers. Whatever the device, tool, or technique invented to address a problem or actualize a possibility, an innovation opens uncharted waters for entrepreneurs, and it breaks the floodgates for policymakers. Drones could open up the entire sky for those who have even a few hundred dollars to acquire a primitive drone for modest goals, but because they could be so accessible by the public, they demand more regulatory attention than most aircraft.

Fagin summarizes the regulator’s dilemma brilliantly: “If policymakers are able to resist knee-jerk responses and instead focus on promoting the benefits of drone use while mitigating the risks, following the principles outlined here, they will take a significant step towards economic growth and a better life for the people of Colorado.”

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