It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a… Drone?

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When I first heard the media stir about drones a couple of years ago, my mind recalled the male bees that live in a hive and do nothing but eat, sleep and breed. Remember those from your elementary school days? Today, the term “drone” is often used in an entirely different context, and the drones in question have only the gift of flight in common with lazy buzzing insects, and the role they play is far more complex.

It’s important to mention that drones are not new: “drone” is a layman’s term for what is technically known as an “unmanned aerial vehicle,” or UAV. UAVs have been used by governments across the globe, for various reasons, for decades. In fact, the U.S. used them in the ’70s during the Vietnam War, and perhaps even earlier, for reconnaissance or other fact-finding missions. The basic concept of a UAV or drone is quite a broad umbrella, though, and not limited to wartime uses: a drone can be both the multi-million dollar, missile-firing machines used today by the CIA in Pakistan, and small machines that are essentially remote control toys. You can even buy the innocuous “Parrot Drone” quadri-copter online for just a few hundred bucks and fly it with your smartphone. (Yes, there’s an app for that.)

Aside from the military and occasional weekend hobbyist, there’s one type of drone user that’s conspicuously absent: businesses. Where are the companies and organizations using drones for commercial use or humanitarian efforts? You haven’t seen much of that, and odds are you won’t anytime soon due to one major opponent: the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA has essentially embargoed any and all commercial use of drones and has been fighting court battles for years and issuing fines to keep businesses from employing drones for any purpose whatsoever. Why? For a few good reasons, safety being the most obvious; with the possibility of a drone falling out of the sky and injuring or killing someone, or at the very least causing property damage. Or, a craft could fly into the path of a passenger jet, putting dozens, if not hundreds of lives at stake. Additionally, camera-equipped drones flying over private property present major privacy issues, because some drones can be nearly undetectable, and you wouldn’t even know you’re being spied on.

However, surveying the technological landscape in 2014, one could argue the real reason we haven’t found a solution to allow the use of commercial drones is because we’re afraid of them.

If you need proof, look no further than the fact that nations similar to ours, in western Europe and Asia, have been using drones commercially for decades. Yamaha has been providing agricultural drones for Japanese farmers for more than 20 years for crop dusting. In the USA, however — the country known for its drones—regulators have tried very hard to prevent progress of any kind.

There is some hope; in a recent case, a federal judge ruled that the FAA has no authority to regulate small drones at all, since they’re essentially “model planes,” falling under the same rules as a small radio control airplanes. But the legal ground is still shaky, and in case you think I’m only picking on the FAA, it’s worth mentioning that many state governments have passed laws preventing certain types of drone use. Louisiana’s most recent anti-drone law would essentially criminalize aerial photography of any kind, with enormous fines and jail time. And even some cities have enacted their own anti-drone laws like Charlottesville, VA, that recently banned law enforcement agencies from using drones anywhere within city limits.

Look at the bizarre paradox this presents: do we really believe that the right answer is to prevent the good guys from using a technology that the bad guys will certainly use, regardless of the law? Will that make us safer?

One could argue — and I would — that there are numerous reasons to allow, and even encourage the commercial use of UAVs. The aforementioned agricultural use for farmers comes to mind, as does journalism, aerial firefighting, environmental research, search and rescue missions, law enforcement; the list is nearly endless. Take a recent search and rescue success story for example; an elderly man went missing in a wooded area in Wisconsin earlier this summer. A traditional search party of more than one hundred people was dispatched, as were search and rescue helicopters, and tracking dogs, but after three days of searching, the poor man still had not been found — until a volunteer sent his drone looking for the man and found him twenty minutes later. Who could argue with results like that?

Believe it or not, our government can argue with it—and has. The FAA has specifically sent letters to search and rescue organizations stating that they cannot use drones even for this powerful, cost-effective, and life-saving purpose. But, to be fair, the FAA has finally agreed to take some steps to integrate drones into our skies, though every single one of the congressional deadlines for integration has been missed.

I’m not optimistic about the current projection for full integration by 2020 — that’s a full six years away anyway, not counting any further delays. There are still many questions to be answered, and I’m sympathetic to the logistical nightmares it could be to offer common-sense regulation that allows the safe, legal operation of drones. However, to think that everyone will sit idly by and watch and wait for a simple blessing from the government to use a technology that is readily available, powerful, and cheap, is naïve. Do we think that a simple rubber stamp from a bureaucratic agency will keep enthusiasts and profiteers twiddling their thumbs for six years? I daresay not.

I recently heard a quote in another context that fits here as well: I sat in on a CyberSecurity panel at Colorado Technical University, and one of the of the speakers summed up the concept in a concise, yet chilling way. A professional security tester (aka a “white hat” hacker) closed by telling the audience: “Right now, the bad guys are beating the good guys, and we’re constantly playing catch-up.” This is a somber warning for many fields of technology, drones included. If we keep the “good guys” from unleashing their innovation and creativity, it’s only a matter of time before someone else, perhaps someone more sinister, will.

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Originally published at the Colorado Springs Independent.


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