Drones: time to reach for the skies

Unmanned aircraft systems could radically enhance people’s lives.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics

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Last weekend, media coverage finally peaked around news that a civilian drone, or unmanned aircraft system (UAS), had a near miss with an airliner over Heathrow in July. The headlines were, as usual with today’s coverage of risk, accompanied by a kind of delighted sense of foreboding. The Heathrow incident, it is now noted, is merely one of many. The New York Police Department worries about drones carrying explosives. Already Greenpeace, always against nuclear power, has warned about unidentified drones over French reactors. And with sales of drones growing, it can only be a matter of time before drones get it in the neck for their petrol engines and CO2 emissions.

But wait. The world needs UAS: they already have found major and very pragmatic uses around construction, agriculture, pipelines, wind turbines and… the detection of CO2. UAS need to be safe, but they cannot and should not be disinvented. Their deployment by the Obama administration in the cause of war is a disgrace. Ominously, too, in Britain, discussions have already begun about deploying drones in the cause of police surveillance. However, by contrast with these kinds of applications of UAS, those in the civilian sphere have enormous potential, and certainly represent a desirable future.

In the US, regulators seem oblivious to the potential benefits of UAS. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) wants ‘small’ UAS, which weigh less than 25 kilogrammes, to fly below 122 metres and within the line of sight of operators; operators who themselves must, in their lifetime, have logged scores of flying hours at the helm of conventional aircraft. Indeed, the FAA wants all these rules to apply all the way down to UAS that weigh less than five kilogrammes.

Why is the FAA so stringent in its approach to regulation? The Economist believes that the regulator is ‘acting as a lobby’ for pilots who are in the conventional flying business. Certainly in Britain, the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa), wants drone operators to be licensed pilots.

In fact, though, there is a drone lobby in the US as much as there is a pilots’ lobby – and lobbies alone cannot explain the obstacles to innovation that now surround drones. As Fortune magazine has more accurately described just one aspect of the forbidding landscape for drones in the US: ‘In coming years, various federal, state, and local authorities will cultivate a tangled swamp of regulations governing the use of UAS in domestic airspace, and several major US law firms are moving to meet what’s expected to be a huge demand for legal guidance as companies large and small bump up against FAA, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and other civil aviation rules for the very first time.’

The case of civilian drones reveals a wider truth. We are dealing with an elite that has lost direction, is unsure of its values, and often loses confidence in its ability to absorb such innovations as it is still able to come up with. As a result, the conventional view that regulation lags behind technological development no longer holds water. Because of today’s broader culture of fear, regulatory hassles tend to precede the full diffusion of new technology, and therefore slow its progress. Buttressed by media and social-media panics, the state’s regulatory impulses are exaggerated, and frequently run amok. From fracking through to artificial intelligence, state sentiment about major innovations makes short work of rationality, and subjects all new technologies to a kind of Ethical Inquisition. When civil-servant turkeys regulate technology, are they likely to vote for a ‘light touch’ Christmas, in which their jobs are ever-so-lightly roasted? In 2014, that seems unlikely.

In fact, the safety issues associated with drones are quite simple. After all, two patents designed to make UAS avoid collisions were filed in the US as far back as 1995 and 1996. We don’t need a ban on UAS so much as a simple requirement that, in 2015, they have collision avoidance installed. That may raise prices from their current minimum of just £35, but too bad. Even at £70 each, masses of drones will still be able to play both an industrious and a pleasurable part in the future. In developing countries, the impact of drones on levels of productivity could rival that made by mobile phones over the past 30 years.

New technologies, like UAS, create new problems: they always have, and they always will. As a result, we do need collision avoidance, regular but quick safety check-ups, and a more-or-less universal drone-operating system – one dedicated to safety, not just to the otherwise useful job of customising drones for different industries.

But demand much more by way of restrictions on drones, and they’ll never make the kind of difference they should.

James Woudhuysen is editor of Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation. Read his blog here.

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Topics Politics


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