If there’s a signature dilemma for our times, it might be this: Technology has leapt far ahead of human ability to reasonably contain it and manage it. The chaotic debut of the Obamacare website, the revelations about the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance capabilities and the theft of 40 million customer identities from Target are just three recent reminders. And now come drones.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last week selected six research sites for testing the integration of unmanned aircraft into the aviation system, raising the probability that soon U.S. skies will be filled with thousands — and eventually millions — of flying robots.
But how to ensure public safety? And how to protect personal privacy? Those remain open questions amid the unmistakable clamor for commercial drones. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos drew snickers a few weeks ago when he predicted that his company would soon deploy fleets of tiny automated helicopters to drop Christmas packages on doorsteps. But the industry is geared up to fly once the FAA flashes a thumbs-up as early as next year.
Drones could analyze crop and livestock conditions, spot forest fires, deliver pizzas, inspect pipelines and dams, rescue lost hikers, deliver medical supplies to remote regions, predict storms, provide traffic reports, track criminals, snoop into the lives of celebrities, sell real estate, display advertising, track endangered wildlife, and provide dramatic photo images for movies and sporting events.
Drones also could smuggle drugs, crash into buildings, act as peeping Toms, drop bombs, shoot guns, and gather personal data on anyone whom the government, a corporation or a private detective agency might find interesting. Hackers could redirect drones in ways that cause all kinds of havoc — from hijacking cargo to colliding with passenger jets.
Despite those and other dangers, the market appears to be an irresistible force. Americans invested more than $40 million in drone technology in the first nine months of last year. Industry groups predict that 30,000 commercial drones will be flying by 2030. (More than 50,000 piloted aircraft now fly over the United States every day.) Drones could bring an $82 billion benefit to the economy by 2025 and add as many as 100,000 jobs.
That’s why the competition for test sites was so intense. The winners — North Dakota, Alaska, Nevada, New York, Virginia and Texas — figure to get a head start on establishing clusters of drone development companies. The University of North Dakota already has a drone research and development center, and the state is building an aerospace complex at nearby Grand Forks Air Force Base with an eye toward drawing private investment and catching overseas competitors now racing ahead. Among them are Britain, Australia and Japan, where 90 percent of crop dusters are drones.
The industry complains that falling behind is costing the United States $10 billion a year. But the FAA’s approach should be cautious and deliberate, given the destructive power that military drones have demonstrated. Crash-avoidance systems must be improved and required. Remote operators must be trained and certified. The already overtaxed air-traffic-control system must be expanded. Each of those factors likely will add cost and delay to drone deployment, but safety should not be compromised.
If anything, privacy is a thornier matter because a whole new wave of digital advances calls into question whether privacy still exists — or can exist. Drones are just one component, but they are a highly visible one. Forty-three states considered laws last year that would ban or restrict drones. One small Colorado town proposed an ordinance encouraging residents to shoot them down. (It’s stuck in court.) Meanwhile, a left-right coalition of legislators — fearful of government and/or corporate tyranny — struggles to find some point of balance between privacy and security while wondering if, in a digital world, it’s possible to have both.