Give us our drone-delivered beer!
That’s how the conversation got started between John Stossel and me on his show this week. I appeared on Stossel’s Fox Business TV show to discuss the many beneficial uses of private drones. The problem is that drones — which are more appropriately called unmanned aircraft systems — have an image problem. When we think about drones today, they often conjure up images of nefarious military machines dealing death and destruction from above in a far-off land. And certainly plenty of that happens today (far, far too much in my personal opinion, but that’s a rant best left for another day!).
But any technology can be put to both good and bad uses, and drones are merely the latest in a long list of “dual-use technologies,” which have both military uses and peaceful private uses. Other examples of dual-use technologies include: automobiles, airplanes, ships, rockets and propulsion systems, chemicals, computers and electronic systems, lasers, sensors, and so on. Put simply, almost any technology that can be used to wage war can also be used to wage peace and commerce. And that’s equally true for drones, which come in many sizes and have many peaceful, non-military uses. Thus, it would be wrong to judge them based upon their early military history or how they are currently perceived. (After all, let’s not forget that the Internet’s early origins were militaristic in character, too!)
Some of the other beneficial uses and applications of unmanned aircraft systems include: agricultural (crop inspection & management, surveying); environmental (geological, forest management, tornado & hurricane research); industrial (site & service inspection, surveying); infrastructure management (traffic and accident monitoring); public safety (search & rescue, post-natural disaster services, other law enforcement); and delivery services (goods & parcels, food & beverages, flowers, medicines, etc.), just to name a few.
This is why it is troubling that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) continues to threaten private drone operators with cease-and-desist letters and discourage the many beneficial uses of these technologies, even as other countries rush ahead and green-light private drone services. As I noted on the Stossel show, while the FAA is well-intentioned in its efforts to keep the nation’s skies safe, the agency is allowing hypothetical worst-case scenarios get in the way of beneficial innovation. A lot of this fear is driven by privacy concerns, too. But as Brookings Institution senior fellow John Villasenor has explained, we need to be careful about rushing to preemptively control new technologies based on hypothetical privacy fears:
If, in 1995, comprehensive legislation to protect Internet privacy had been enacted, it would have utterly failed to anticipate the complexities that arose after the turn of the century with the growth of social networking and location-based wireless services. The Internet has proven useful and valuable in ways that were difficult to imagine over a decade and a half ago, and it has created privacy challenges that were equally difficult to imagine. Legislative initiatives in the mid-1990s to heavily regulate the Internet in the name of privacy would likely have impeded its growth while also failing to address the more complex privacy issues that arose years later.
This is a key theme discussed throughout my new book, “Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom.” The central lesson of the booklet is that living in constant fear of hypothetical worst-case scenarios — and premising public policy upon them — means that best-case scenarios will never come about. We shouldn’t let our initial (and often irrational) fears of new technologies dictate the future course of innovation.We can and will find constructive solutions to the hard problems posed by new technologies because we creative and resilient creatures. And, yes, some regulation will be necessary. But how and when we regulate matters profoundly. Preemptive, precautionary-based proposals are almost never the best way to start.
Finally, as I also noted during the interview with Stossel, it’s always important to consider trade-offs and opportunity costs when discussing the disruptive impact of new technologies. For example, while some fear the safety implications of private drones, we should not forget that over 30,000 people die in automobile-related accidents every year in the United States. While the number of vehicle-related deaths has been declining in recent years, that remains an astonishing number of deaths. What if a new technology existed that could help prevent a significant number of these fatalities? Certainly, “smart car” technology and fully autonomous “driverless cars” should help bring down that number significantly. But how might drones help?
Consider some of the mundane tasks that automobiles are used for today. Cars are used to go grab dinner or have someone else deliver it, to pick up medicine at a local pharmacy, to have newspapers or flowers delivered, and so on. Every time a human gets behind the wheel of an automobile to do these things the chance for injury or even death exists, even close to home. In fact, a large percentage of all accidents happen with just a few miles of the car owner’s home. A significant number of those accidents could be avoided if we were able to rely on drone-delivery of things we today use cars and trucks for.
These are just some of the things to consider as the debate over unmanned aircraft systems continues. Drones have gotten a very bad name thus far, but we should remain open-minded about their many beneficial, peaceful, and pro-consumer uses.
(For more on this issue, read this April 2013 filing to the FAA I wrote along with my Mercatus colleagues Eli Dourado and Jerry Brito.)