We’d best get prepared for the traffic jams in the sky.
The remarkable growth of quadcopter drones can be directly attributed to our near-insatiable demand to pack more and more features into our mobile phones. Thanks to the “smartphone wars”, tiny accelerometers, gyroscopes, GPS and wireless communication units have become widely available, at price points that are constantly falling.
This market dynamic has made it commercially affordable to include complex electronics in portable flying devices, transforming what was once a specialist hobby that required long hours of practice into a recreational activity that young children and unskilled adults alike can indulge in, straight out of the box.
If anything, today’s recreational drones completely de-emphasize the skill of flight control, preferring to focus on other abilities of these devices such as shooting high-definition gyroscopically-stabilized video or delivering cargo.
Thanks to advanced mobile tethering technologies, most drones don’t even require you to fly them — they can be simply programmed to follow you from on high as you careen down ski slopes, over white-water rapids or wherever else your adrenaline-infused adventure sport of choice might take you. It is this form of video acquisition that most drones are being used for, with manufacturers pouring more and more technology into automatic obstacle avoidance and smart return-home features.
And yet, it seems that regulators around the world are bent on applying flight regulations to drones — regardless of what they are being used for. The Obama administration (prompted, most likely, by the consternation that followed when a DJI drone crash-landed onto the lawns of the White House), issued draft regulations that required operators to always have unaided line of sight to the drones they are controlling.
The Director General of Civil Aviation, Government of India, has proposed regulations that will require operators who fly drones that weigh more than 2kg to undergo thorough ground training “equivalent to that undertaken by aircrew of manned aircraft” and which must include a proportion of simulated flight training. Why line of sight or flight training should even be relevant in the context of fully autonomous flying vehicles that, at least theoretically, are capable of navigating for themselves and returning back home, completely escapes me.
Which is not to say that the drone industry does not need regulation. The fact that these small devices incorporate high resolution cameras and have the ability to hover outside the bedrooms of our tallest apartment buildings, strips away the privilege of privacy all high-rise tenants believe that elevation offers. And despite all the sophisticated tethering technologies that these devices come equipped with, they still occasionally fly away from their owners, causing harm to innocent bystanders when their battery runs down and they fall from the sky.
The real problem with these regulations stems from the process that we use to identify the appropriate regulator. Governments tend to characterize technology by description and use that as the basis for determining the appropriate regulator. Thanks to this imperfect logic, ride-sharing companies have been brought under the purview of taxi regulators and couch-surfing companies have had to put up with hotel inspectors.
If these are the round holes into which modern governments are trying to fit the square pegs of innovative technology enterprises, it’s no surprise that miniature flying vehicles are being regulated by a ministry used to dealing with jumbo jets. The aviation ministry isn’t really equipped to appreciate the legal nuances around the legitimate expectation of privacy that exists above 100 metres. And while they may know a thing or two about what makes a plane fall out of the sky, the scientific explanation behind why quadcopter drones sometimes break the Wi-Fi connection with their base unit is not exactly taught at the same school.
I believe the aviation ministry should limit its authority to regulating the use of drones in and around airports and up to the height at which commercial aircraft fly. All other regulation should be handed over to the terrestrial authorities who will actually have to deal with the consequences. Law enforcement is already obliged to handle privacy violations under applicable law.
It will not be that much of a stretch for them to apply similar principles to a higher elevation. Municipal authorities could creatively apply a typically municipal solution to the problem by zoning areas within the city for drone activity. Our cities are already divided into areas that clearly demarcate where motorized vehicles can ply and where pedestrians must walk. It will be relatively trivial to extend these principles upward into the third dimension and zone the areas in which drones can fly.
Given the inexorable uptick in drone usage, the future is not far away when the traffic jams that congest our urban spaces will extend to the skies above us.
It’s best we get prepared.
This article was first published in The Mint under a column called Ex Machina on the interface between law and technology.