In the past, military research and development have resulted in immeasurable impacts on consumer technology. From the Internet to GPS, technologies that have radically changed human society have stemmed from developments that began in the research labs of the armed forces and federally funded organizations like NASA. Known as spinoff technologies, these inventions arise from methods and apparatuses developed strictly for use in strategic operations that are then purposed for commercial uses. Looking into our own future, there is one technology that the military has invested in during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and as our operations abroad wind down, the potential to commercially apply this technology is high.
Despite considerable backlash against them, the use of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones) in the military has exploded in the last 10 years. With recent advances in drone technology, it is now fairly clear that there is a strong potential for the commercial application of drones. Agricultural businesses already use drones to fly over crop fields and spray pesticides. Drones are not only much cheaper than planes, but they are far safer and much easier for anyone to learn how to fly (it helps that risk of death is minimal, compared with piloting small planes). But the potential of drones does not stop there.
In the airline industry, it is increasingly apparent that there are compelling reasons to switch to UAVs for commercial aircraft. Computer-piloted vehicles do not make mistakes, do not get tired and never have to change shifts. They eliminate the risk for disaster resulting from human error. In the long run, they save airline companies money by eliminating the need to pay pilots. More ambitiously, drones can be used for police surveillance and recording athletic events, and Amazon is looking into using them to deliver goods. A baseball stadium in Australia even offers beer delivered by drones.
However, while these technologies are exciting and full of potential, commercial drones are plagued with a host of setbacks and roadblocks. Namely, the commercial use of drones is still illegal according to the Federal Aviation Administration. As unmanned small aircraft, they are classified as recreational vehicles (think RC helicopters), and it is illegal to fly them outside of the operator’s visual range or at altitudes higher than 400 feet. Perhaps bad news for drones, but the policies and laws are lagging behind an increasingly exciting industry, and pressures from big players like Amazon are likely to lead to a revision of these laws in the near future.
Furthermore, the notion of camera-equipped drones populating U.S. airspace raises a lot of privacy concerns. Police could perhaps use face-recognition technologies to identify faces in a crowd using a drone fly over. You can hardly consent to being filmed if a robot is the one filming you. As a society, we lack the legal infrastructure to address these technological changes. However, it is important not to allow legal systems developed for a different age to limit our growth and exploration of new technologies. While traditional American notions of privacy are fundamental in this country, we will have to seriously look at how deep rights to privacy go, and how much we are willing to concede in the name of technological progress and convenience.
Looking into the future, it will be interesting to see what other ways people can come up with to use drones. It is even possible that they will not be very useful at all, outside of specific industrial purposes that are already in use. However, drones also represent a potential way to efficiently move goods and items that does not congest traffic routes used by civilians and to take advantage of unused airspace. To me, that is enough to at least give them a try.
Henry Parrott is a junior in the School of Foreign Service.
This is the final appearance of TECH TALK in the guide this semester.