Drones

I suppose it was inevitable that the DRM wars would come to the world of drones. Reporting for the Wall Street Journal today, Jack Nicas notes that:

In response to the drone crash at the White House this week, the Chinese maker of the device that crashed said it is updating its drones to disable them from flying over much of Washington, D.C.SZ DJI Technology Co. of Shenzhen, China, plans to send a firmware update in the next week that, if downloaded, would prevent DJI drones from taking off within the restricted flight zone that covers much of the U.S. capital, company spokesman Michael Perry said.

Washington Post reporter Brian Fung explains what this means technologically:

The [DJI firmware] update will add a list of GPS coordinates to the drone’s computer telling it where it can and can’t go. Here’s how that system works generally: When a drone comes within five miles of an airport, Perry explained, an altitude restriction gets applied to the drone so that it doesn’t interfere with manned aircraft. Within 1.5 miles, the drone will be automatically grounded and won’t be able to fly at all, requiring the user to either pull away from the no-fly zone or personally retrieve the device from where it landed. The concept of triggering certain actions when reaching a specific geographic area is called “geofencing,” and it’s a common technology in smartphones. Since 2011, iPhone owners have been able to create reminders that alert them when they arrive at specific locations, such as the office.

This is complete overkill and it almost certainly will not work in practice. First, this is just DRM for drones, and just as DRM has failed in most other cases, it will fail here as well. If you sell somebody a drone that doesn’t work within a 15-mile radius of a major metropolitan area, they’ll be online minutes later looking for a hack to get it working properly. And you better believe they will find one. Continue reading →

FAA sealRegular readers know that I can get a little feisty when it comes to the topic of “regulatory capture,” which occurs when special interests co-opt policymakers or political bodies (regulatory agencies, in particular) to further their own ends. As I noted in my big compendium, “Regulatory Capture: What the Experts Have Found“:

While capture theory cannot explain all regulatory policies or developments, it does provide an explanation for the actions of political actors with dismaying regularity.  Because regulatory capture theory conflicts mightily with romanticized notions of “independent” regulatory agencies or “scientific” bureaucracy, it often evokes a visceral reaction and a fair bit of denialism.

Indeed, the more I highlight the problem of regulatory capture and offer concrete examples of it in practice, the more push-back I get from true believers in the idea of “independent” agencies. Even if I can get them to admit that history offers countless examples of capture in action, and that a huge number of scholars of all persuasions have documented this problem, they will continue to persist that, WE CAN DO BETTER! and that it is just a matter of having THE RIGHT PEOPLE! who will TRY HARDER!

Well, maybe. But I am a realist and a believer in historical evidence. And the evidence shows, again and again, that when Congress (a) delegates broad, ambiguous authority to regulatory agencies, (b) exercises very limited oversight over that agency, and then, worse yet, (c) allows that agency’s budget to grow without any meaningful constraint, then the situation is ripe for abuse. Specifically, where unchecked power exists, interests will look to exploit it for their own ends.

In any event, all I can do is to continue to document the problem of regulatory capture in action and try to bring it to the attention of pundits and policymakers in the hope that we can start the push for real agency oversight and reform. Today’s case in point comes from a field I have been covering here a lot over the past year: commercial drone innovation. Continue reading →

DroneIf you want a devastating portrait of how well-intentioned regulation sometimes has profoundly deleterious unintended consequences, look no further than the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) current ban on commercial drones in domestic airspace. As Jack Nicas reports in a story in today’s Wall Street Journal (“Regulation Clips Wings of U.S. Drone Makers“), the FAA’s heavy-handed regulatory regime is stifling America’s ability to innovate in this space and remain competitive internationally. As Nicas notes:

as unmanned aircraft enter private industry—for purposes as varied as filming movies, inspecting wind farms and herding cattle—many U.S. drone entrepreneurs are finding it hard to get off the ground, even as rivals in Europe, Canada, Australia and China are taking off.

The reason, according to interviews with two-dozen drone makers, sellers and users across the world: regulation. The FAA has banned all but a handful of private-sector drones in the U.S. while it completes rules for them, expected in the next several years. That policy has stifled the U.S. drone market and driven operators underground, where it is difficult to find funding, insurance and customers.

Outside the U.S., relatively accommodating policies have fueled a commercial-drone boom. Foreign drone makers have fed those markets, while U.S. export rules have generally kept many American manufacturers from serving them.

Of course, the FAA simply responds that they are looking out for the safety of the skies and that we shouldn’t blame them. Continue reading →

drone picToday, Ryan Hagemann and I filed comments with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in its proceeding on the “Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft.” This may sound like a somewhat arcane topic but it is related to the ongoing policy debate over the integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UASs)—more commonly referred to as drones—into the National Airspace System. As part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress required the FAA to come up with a plan by September 2015 to accomplish that goal. As part of that effort, the FAA is currently accepting comments on its enforcement authority over model aircraft. Because the distinction between “drones” and “model aircraft” is blurring rapidly, the outcome of this proceeding could influence the outcome of the broader debate about drone policy in the United States.

In our comment to the agency, Hagemann and I discuss the need for the agency to conduct a thorough review of the benefits and costs associated with this rule. We argue this is essential because airspace is poised to become a major platform for innovation if the agency strikes the right balance between safety and innovation. To achieve that goal, we stress the need for flexibility and humility in interpreting older standards, such as “line of sight” restrictions, as well as increasingly archaic “noncommercial” vs. “commercial” distinctions or “hobbyists” vs. “professional” designations.

We also highlight the growing tension between the agency’s current regulatory approach and the First Amendment rights of the public to engage in peaceful, information-gathering activities using these technologies. (Importantly, on that point, we attached to our comments a new Mercatus Center working paper by Cynthia Love, Sean T. Lawson, and Avery Holton entitled, “News from Above: First Amendment Implications of the Federal Aviation Administration Ban on Commercial Drones.” See my coverage of the paper here.)

Finally, Hagemann and I close by noting the important role that voluntary self-regulation and codes of conduct already play in governing proper use of these technologies. We also argue that other “bottom-up” remedies are available and should be used before the agency imposes additional restrictions on this dynamic, rapidly evolving space.

You can download the complete comment on the Mercatus Center website here. (Note: The Mercatus Center filed comments with the FAA earlier about the prompt integration of drones into the nation’s airspace. You can read those comments here.)

Continue reading →

DroneThe use of unmanned aircraft systems, or “drones,” for private and commercial uses remains the subject of much debate. The issue has been heating up lately after Congress ordered the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to integrate UASs into the nation’s airspace system by 2015 as part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

The debate has thus far centered mostly around the safety and privacy-related concerns associated with private use of drones. The FAA continues to move slowly on this front based on a fear that private drones could jeopardize air safety or the safety of others on the ground. Meanwhile, some privacy advocates are worried that private drones might be used in ways that invade private spaces or even public areas where citizens have a reasonable expectation of privacy. For these and other reasons, the FAA’s current ban on private operation of drones in the nation’s airspace remains in place.

But what about the speech-related implications of this debate? After all, private and commercial UASs can have many peaceful, speech-related uses. Indeed, to borrow Ithiel de Sola Pool’s term, private drones can be thought of as “technologies or freedom” that expand and enhance the ability of humans to gather and share information, thus in turn expanding the range of human knowledge and freedom.

A new Mercatus Center at George Mason University working paper, “News from Above: First Amendment Implications of the Federal Aviation Administration Ban on Commercial Drones,” deals with these questions.  This 59-page working paper was authored by Cynthia Love, Sean T. Lawson, and Avery Holton. (Love is currently a Law Clerk for Judge Carolyn B. McHugh in 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Lawson and Holton are affliated with the Department of Communication at the University of Utah.)

“To date, little attention has been paid to the First Amendment implications of the [FAA] ban,” note Love, Lawson, and Holton. Their article argues that “aerial photography with UASs, whether commercial or not, is protected First Amendment activity, particularly for news-gathering purposes. The FAA must take First Amendment-protected uses of this technology into account as it proceeds with meeting its congressional mandate to promulgate rules for domestic UASs.” They conclude by noting that “The dangers of [the FAA’s] regulatory approach are no mere matter of esoteric administrative law. Rather, as we have demonstrated, use of threats to enforce illegally promulgated rules, in particular a ban on journalistic use of UASs, infringes upon perhaps our most cherished constitutional right, that of free speech and a free press.” Continue reading →

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.

Continue reading →

Yesterday, an administrative judge ruled in Huerta v. Pirker that the FAA’s “rules” banning commercial drones don’t have the force of law because the agency never followed the procedures required to enact them as an official regulation. The ruling means that any aircraft that qualifies as a “model aircraft” plausibly operates under laissez-faire. Entrepreneurs are free for now to develop real-life TacoCopters, and Amazon can launch its Prime Air same-day delivery service.

Laissez-faire might not last. The FAA could appeal the ruling, try to issue an emergency regulation, or simply wait 18 months or so until its current regulatory proceedings culminate in regulations for commercial drones. If they opt for the last of these, then the drone community has an interesting opportunity to show that regulations for small commercial drones do not pass a cost-benefit test. So start new drone businesses, but as Matt Waite says, “Don’t do anything stupid. Bad actors make bad policy.”

Kudos to Brendan Schulman, the attorney for Pirker, who has been a tireless advocate for the freedom to innovate using drone technology. He is on Twitter at @dronelaws, and if you’re at all interested in this issue, he is a great person to follow.

James Barrat, author of Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, discusses the future of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Barrat takes a look at how to create friendly AI with human characteristics, which other countries are developing AI, and what we could expect with the arrival of the Singularity. He also touches on the evolution of AI and how companies like Google and IBM and government entities like DARPA and the NSA are developing artificial general intelligence devices right now.

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In an op-ed at CNN, Ryan Calo argues that the real drone revolution will arrive when ordinary people can own and operate app-enabled drones. Rather than being dominated by a few large tech companies, drones should develop along the lines of the PC model: they should be purchasable by consumers and they should run third-party software or apps.

The real explosion of innovation in computing occurred when devices got into the hands of regular people. Suddenly consumers did not have to wait for IBM or Apple to write every software program they might want to use. Other companies and individuals could also write a “killer app.” Much of the software that makes personal computers, tablets and smartphones such an essential part of daily life now have been written by third-party developers.

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Once companies such as Google, Amazon or Apple create a personal drone that is app-enabled, we will begin to see the true promise of this technology. This is still a ways off. There are certainly many technical, regulatory and social hurdles to overcome. But I would think that within 10 to 15 years, we will see robust, multipurpose robots in the hands of consumers.

I agree with Ryan that a world where only big companies can operate drones is undesirable. His vision of personal drones meshes well with my argument in Wired that we should see airspace as a platform for innovation.

This is why I am concerned about the overregulation of drones. Big companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google will always have legal departments that will enable them to comply with drone regulations. But will all of us? There are economies of scale in regulatory compliance. If we’re not careful, we could regulate the little guy out of drones entirely—and then only big companies will be able to own and operate them. This is something I’m looking at closely in advance of the FAA proceedings on drones in 2014.

Yesterday at Forbes, William Pentland had an interesting piece on possible disintermediation in the electricity market.

In New York and New England, the price of electricity is a function of the cost of natural gas plus the cost of the poles and wires that carry electrons from remotely-sited power plants to end users. It is not unusual for customers to spend two dollars on poles and wires for every dollar they spend on electrons.

The poles and wires that once reduced the price of electricity for end users are now doing the opposite. To make matters worse, electricity supplied through the power grid is frequently less reliable than electricity generated onsite. In other words, rather than adding value in the form of enhanced reliability, the poles and wires diminish the reliability of electricity.

If two thirds of the cost of electricity is the distribution mechanism, then, as Pentland notes, there is a palpable opportunity to switch to at-home electricity generation. Some combination of solar power, batteries, and natural gas-fired backup generators could displace the grid entirely for some customers. And if I understand my electricity economics correctly, if a significant fraction of customers go off-grid, the fixed cost of maintaining the grid will be split over fewer remaining customers, making centrally-generated electricity even more expensive. The market for such electricity could quickly unravel. Continue reading →