Cheap UAVs

by on May 29, 2007 · 8 comments

One of the most exciting things about technological progress, from a libertarian perspective, is that as technologies get cheaper, they get harder and harder for the state to regulate. The prolific Chris Anderson has the latest example: he’s built an unmanned aerial vehicle for under $1000. He explains his motivations here:

The main aim of this project is to both make the world’s cheapest full-featured UAV and the first one designed to be within the reach of high school and below kids, as a platform for an aerial robotics contest. Like the Lego FIRST league, but in the air.

But there is another aim, which I ended being asked about a lot at Maker Faire. At the moment the FAA regulations on UAVs are ambiguous (we believe that by staying below 400 feet and within line-of-sight we’re within them). But there is a good deal of concern that as small and cheap UAVs become more common, the FAA will toughen the rules, making activities such as ours illegal. I hope this project will illustrate why that approach won’t work.

By creating a UAV with Lego parts and built in part by kids, we haven’t just created a minimum UAV, we’ve created a reductio ad absurdum one. If children can make UAVs out of toys, the genie is out of the bottle. Clear use guidelines (such as staying below 400 feet and away from tall buildings) would be welcome, but blanket bans or requirements for explicit FAA approval for each launch will be too hard to enforce. The day when there was a limited “UAV industry” that could be regulated are gone.

Government regulation almost always works by controlling intermediaries—usually large companies. As more and more technologies come within reach of individuals, using off-the-shelf parts, it will be harder and harder for the government to control them. I say bring it on.

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