Permissionless Innovation & Commercial Drones

by on February 4, 2015 · 0 comments

Farhad Manjoo’s latest New York Times column, “Giving the Drone Industry the Leeway to Innovate,” discusses how the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) current regulatory morass continues to thwart many potentially beneficial drone innovations. I particularly appreciated this point:

But perhaps the most interesting applications for drones are the ones we can’t predict. Imposing broad limitations on drone use now would be squashing a promising new area of innovation just as it’s getting started, and before we’ve seen many of the potential uses. “In the 1980s, the Internet was good for some specific military applications, but some of the most important things haven’t really come about until the last decade,” said Michael Perry, a spokesman for DJI [maker of Phantom drones]. . . . He added, “Opening the technology to more people allows for the kind of innovation that nobody can predict.”

That is exactly right and it reflects the general notion of “permissionless innovation” that I have written about extensively here in recent years. As I summarized in a recent essay: “Permissionless innovation refers to the notion that experimentation with new technologies and business models should generally be permitted by default. Unless a compelling case can be made that a new invention or business model will bring serious harm to individuals, innovation should be allowed to continue unabated and problems, if they develop at all, can be addressed later.”

The reason that permissionless innovation is so important is that innovation is more likely in political systems that maximize breathing room for ongoing economic and social experimentation, evolution, and adaptation. We don’t know what the future holds. Only incessant experimentation and trial-and-error can help us achieve new heights of greatness. If, however, we adopt the opposite approach of “precautionary principle”-based reasoning and regulation, then these chances for serendipitous discovery evaporate. As I put it in my recent book, “living in constant fear of worst-case scenarios—and premising public policy upon them—means that best-case scenarios will never come about. When public policy is shaped by precautionary principle reasoning, it poses a serious threat to technological progress, economic entrepreneurialism, social adaptation, and long-run prosperity.”

In this regard, the unprecedented growth of the Internet is a good example of how permissionless innovation can significantly improve consumer welfare and our nation’s competitive status relative to the rest of the world. And this also holds lessons for how we treat commercial drone technologies, as Jerry Brito, Eli Dourado, and I noted when filing comments with the FAA back in April 2013. We argued:

Like the Internet, airspace is a platform for commercial and social innovation. We cannot accurately predict to what uses it will be put when restrictions on commercial use of UASs are lifted. Nevertheless, experience shows that it is vital that innovation and entrepreneurship be allowed to proceed without ex ante barriers imposed by regulators. We therefore urge the FAA not to impose any prospective restrictions on the use of commercial UASs without clear evidence of actual, not merely hypothesized, harm.

Manjoo builds on that same point in his new Times essay when he notes:

[drone] enthusiasts see almost limitless potential for flying robots. When they fantasize about our drone-addled future, they picture not a single gadget, but a platform — a new class of general-purpose computer, as important as the PC or the smartphone, that may be put to use in a wide variety of ways. They talk about applications in construction, firefighting, monitoring and repairing infrastructure, agriculture, search and response, Internet and communications services, logistics and delivery, filmmaking and wildlife preservation, among other uses.

If only the folks at the FAA and in Congress saw things this way. We need to open up the skies to the amazing innovative potential of commercial drone technology, especially before the rest of the world seizes the opportunity to jump into the lead on this front.


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