Drones and Regulation

All the signs are there that this is going to be a breakthrough year for drones when it comes to bursting into the public consciousness.

The Federal Aviation Authority in the U.S. was expected to bring out regulations on drones in December but it appears that they might be struggling with some of the complexities. As it stands at present, there is a general ban on commercial drone flight in the U.S. (subject to certain strict exemptions). It is believed that the new regulations will restrict drones weighing under 55 lbs to flying no higher than 400 feet, only during daylight hours and staying in sight of their operators (who may also be required to get pilot’s licences).

In the UK, it’s slightly different. The Civil Aviation Authority restricts flights for drones weighing over 20kg (44 lbs) and they are certainly viewed as aircraft, as opposed to simply the preserve of hobbyists.

I was listening to the Exponent podcast recently to a fascinating discussion around some of the regulatory pressures that will inevitably build up around this young technology. Let’s dig in to a few of the issues.

If we start with the risks, you don’t have to think too hard to come up with some challenges that the industry, and more widely, society will have to address. Put simply, the opportunity for misuse is significant. Drones represent the physical manifestation of a person’s intentions – and in this way, they fundamentally alter the existing equation that broadly says, if you wish to do harm to someone, you will have to put yourself into harm’s way. There is almost nothing that can be done to prevent an individual who is willing to give up his or her life in order to carry out a suicide bombing, for example – yet arguably with drones, the barriers to carrying to same actions out become lower, potentially opening the activity up to a far wider pool of motivated individuals. It’s far easier to sacrifice the ‘life’ of your £1,000 drone  instead.

Some examples: drones spotted flying over nuclear power plants in France, the recent drone flying a flag over a racially-charged football match and the recent arrest in the U.S. of an individual who boasted of his intent to load up a drone with a bomb and to then fly this drone into a school.

Drones also change the equation when it comes to the targeting of high value assets – in other words, assassination attempts. Yes, it’s conceivable that the police or military could – if they were lucky – shoot down a drone carrying a grenade that’s flying, perhaps at speeds upwards of 60 mph, towards a politician. But if there were five? Ten? No chance.

By removing the presence of a human from an equation and introducing a technology that could also conceivably be pre-programmed, there is even the prospect of one individual leaving drones around the country and carrying out a co-ordinated, simultaneous attack in a number of cities in the future.

So that’s the terrorist angle. You have to also factor in unbalanced individuals, before you can even get to the hobbyists who just make a mistake. Flying a drone too close to the engine of a descending aircraft to get a good video and bringing the plane down would certainly fall into this category but there are many others that you could imagine. And then, last but certainly not least, there’s the privacy aspect. If drone usage becomes far more widespread and you end up with them buzzing outside bedroom windows, it’s not hard to imagine some form of retribution being dished out (justified or not) .

With that huge list of potential doomsday scenarios seemingly just around the corner, surely the answer is to regulate heavily – or indeed to introduce a total ban?

Although it’s far from clear cut, I can’t believe that that’s the right way to go – for a number of reasons. In this case, I have a lot of sympathy for the argument that says the only people who will follow such regulations are the ‘good’ people – the so-called ‘bad’ people aren’t the ones that will be checking sub-section 54(7)c of the legislation before carrying out a terrorist attack. So – in the absence of a complete ban, in which case all drones can be shot down out of the sky on sight – what good is regulation really going to do?

One of the reasons that technology is so valuable is because when you have advancements in something that can be replicated repeatedly and in significant numbers, it has by definition the potential to drive massive disruption throughout society. This invariably brings challenges but it’s critically important to be able to separate genuine threats to health and society from the resistance that comes from incumbent powers-that-be who want to protect the status quo. I see so many parallels with what is happening with Bitcoin/Blockchain innovations here – even although there is no specific incumbent being displaced by these drones as such. Perhaps we are simply entering into an age where air logistics are being decentralised.

It’s a common (and often truthful) criticism of technologists that they are too optimistic about the future. Yet there are a couple of key points here. In exactly the same way as any other technological innovation, from the motor car to the blockchain, once the invention happens, the cat is out of the bag. That toothpaste ain’t going back in that tube no matter how hard you might try.

But the second point is, I believe, critical when it comes to innovation. When a technology is invented, it is often far easier to focus on negative use-cases – because you are using existing reality as your reference point. A reality that, by definition, is about to be disrupted as a result. The true value of innovations usually comes in use-cases that have not yet been imagined. There is an inevitable time lag before people’s individual concepts and mental models evolve to reflect such breakthroughs. At the moment (similar again to Bitcoin), there’s an assumption that the value is only there for hobbyists and early adopters – what possible use could you have for a drone unless you’re simply having a laugh (in which case, let’s regulate for safety) or intending to break, or stretch, the law (in which case, let’s regulate for protection). Yet think of how different that conversation inevitably becomes once the population has grown to expect first response emergency healthcare to be delivered by drones, for example.

Now I’m not saying that zero regulation is the way forward. It’s a complex and nuanced topic. Protections no doubt will be required and I’m certain that a reasoned and open discussion at this point will be far more valuable than in the future in the immediate aftermath of a high profile drone incident. However it’s important to adopt a balanced approach (don’t stifle the innovation that has yet to take place).

I’d love to know your thoughts on this – please leave a comment if you have a view. There’s no doubt that opening up the discussion further on these sorts of topics is crucial to the debate. And that’s why I’m happy that this year looks like being the breakout year for drones.