Drones

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.


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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 →

Timothy Ravich

Timothy Ravich, a board certified aviation lawyer in private practice and an adjunct professor of law at the Florida International University School of Law and the University of Miami School of Law, discusses the future of unmanned aerial system (UAS), also known as drones.

Ravich defines what UAVs are, what they do, and what their potential non-military uses are. He explains that UAV operations have outpaced the law in that they are not sufficiently supported by a dedicated and enforceable regime of rules, regulations, and standards respecting their integration into the national airspace.

Ravich goes on to explain that Congress has mandated the FAA to integrate UAS into the national airspace by 2015, and explains the challenges the agency faces. Among the novel issues domestic drone use raises are questions about trespass, liability, and privacy.

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