When a small drone slipped free from its operator one morning last week and flew into the Washington sky, evading radar and the best defenses of the United States Secret Service to end up a sorry wreck on the White House lawn, the incident seemed to crystallise the fear that many harbour about a future dominated by aerial machines.
But let’s not ground these mechanical birds just yet. Rather than highlighting the actual dangers of drone flight, the White House crash-landing is a better illustration of the hodgepodge, almost backward set of rules governing the drone industry in the United States.
Commercial operators—people who are making money from their flights and therefore have an incentive to improve their training and the technology on their drones—are now barred from flying in most circumstances. And the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to release new draft rules in the next month that will allow for commercial drone operation in only a limited way. The rules are likely to prohibit drones from flying above 400 feet and require that they be used within sight of the operator.
Untrained hobbyists like the one who crashed the drone in Washington, however, are allowed to fly their devices with relative freedom. For years, the drone industry has been calling on the Federal Aviation Administration to loosen rules on commercial unmanned flight. The White House crash is another in a string of public relations disasters that may hamper that effort. Drones have an image problem. In the popular imagination, unmanned flying robots portend an overhead invasion of privacy, a potential for novel and terrifying aerial attack and a dangerous cluttering of our skies.
“Right now when you see a news story about an unmanned vehicle, it’s either a story about a hobbyist who did something crazy with his small toy, or you hear about a military strike in the Middle East,” said Jesse Kallman, the head of business development and regulatory affairs at Airware, a start-up that produces a kind of operating system for drones.
But Kallman, like many in the industry, says that the perceptions have been shaped by a lack of obvious applications for drones, a lack that he blames in part on overly restrictive regulations. If the rules are loosened and commercial operations take flight, drone makers argue that perceptions will shift.
That’s because enthusiasts see almost limitless potential for flying robots. When they fantasise about our drone-addled future, they picture not a single gadget, but a platform—a new class of general-purpose computer, as important as the PC or the smartphone, that may be put to use in a wide variety of ways. They talk about applications in construction, firefighting, monitoring and repairing infrastructure, agriculture, search and response, Internet and communications services, logistics and delivery, filmmaking and wildlife preservation, among other uses.
But perhaps the most interesting applications for drones are the ones we can’t predict. Imposing broad limitations on drone use now would be squashing a promising new area of innovation just as it’s getting started, and before we’ve seen many of the potential uses.
“In the 1980s, the Internet was good for some specific military applications, but some of the most important things haven’t really come about until the last decade,” said Michael Perry, a spokesman for DJI, a Hong Kong-based drone maker whose Phantom drone was involved in the White House crash.
Federal drone restrictions have a single purpose in mind: safety. The FAA, which declined to comment because it was completing a draft proposal on how to regulate drones, has spent several years mulling over the right balance between keeping the skies safe and allowing for growth of a new technology. Regulators abroad have moved more quickly. In Australia, Britain, France and Sweden, drones are allowed for commercial use if they receive permission from the government. The European Commission is working on a set of rules to allow for commercial drone operations across the Continent.
Kallman of Airware has called for rules that take into account the specific risk posed by a proposed use of drones. Kallman is also calling for regulators to take into account the technology on board each drone and to allow more freedom to machines that can detect, and respond to, potentially dangerous situations in their environment.
Such technology would be a significant advance. Although they are marketed as intelligent machines, the dirty secret of the drone business is that most unmanned vehicles are little more than fancy remote-control planes. Many have little autonomous intelligence and can’t detect and avoid obstacles. They’re poor at figuring out where they are and staying put, and they all require a learning curve for novice pilots.
The stringent restrictions could be damaging. Kallman warns that innovation in drones could move overseas, which would be a shame. All novel technologies carry some level of risk. But there is a history, in the United States, of regulators offering new industries relative leeway to find their footing, often successfully. It happened with the early days of the Internet and with technologies like Wi-Fi. It could happen with drones, too, if only we let it.
By Farhad Manjoo