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How to Stop Worrying and Learn To Love Drones

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Yahoo Tech

(Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

It’s been a rough week for flying robots.

First, a government employee engaged in some late-night flight tests saw his DJI Phantom drone stop responding to his controls, fly away, and crash-land on the White House lawn.

DJI responded by shipping a firmware update to ground its drones within a 15.5-mile radius of the White House (too bad if you’d honored the Federal Aviation Administration’s longstanding D.C.-area flight restrictions by only operating your drone indoors).

Then, Sen. Rand Paul, R.-Ky., suggested in a Snapchat interview that he’d greet any drone over his house with a blast from his shotgun. And why not? Drone hunting has apparently become a popular fantasy.

Drone anxiety is spreading. A survey last year by the Pew Research Center and Smithsonian magazine found that 63 percent of Americans thought it would be a change for the worse if “personal and commercial drones are given permission to fly through most U.S. airspace.”

In comparison, only 53 percent gave the thumbs-down to a future in which “most people wear implants or other devices that constantly show them information about the world around them.” Yes, drones had a worse image than Google Glass.

How could that be? And how could this perception problem be fixed?

Drones have eyes
If you want to make people nervous about a new gadget, put a camera on it.

I get this concern. I’d rather not have somebody performing aerial reconnaissance of my lawn’s patchy spots with a drone, and the law is clear that your property rights don’t extend into the skies.

But Rich Hanson, government-relations director for the 78-year-old Academy of Model Aeronautics, said a drone low enough to see in your windows could count as trespassing, in addition to constituting an obvious violation of existing privacy laws.

At the same time, this reminds me of the Google Glass privacy scare. If you want to record somebody surreptitiously, you don’t tip them off by wearing a computer on your face — and if you want to get footage of somebody’s backyard, a buzzing, whining machine won’t help you do that unnoticed. 

What we haven’t figured out yet is if we need some way to ID any given drone above us. Hanson suggested that we might yet see a registration requirement (something the FAA doesn’t demand of piloted ultralight planes) or an automatically transmitted identification code. So at least we’ll know who’s snooping on us.

The CIA puts missiles on machines with the same name
The name “drone” can’t be separated from the extensive use of armed drones by the U.S. government. But the vast gap in size, speed, range, and capabilities between a $500 Parrot Bebop and a $4 million-plus General Atomics Predator ought to make us wonder: Should these unmanned aerial vehicles be called the same thing?

I called up marketing maven and semi-frustrated drone owner Peter Shankman  to see how he’d try to rebrand consumer UAVs — and no, an acronym like “UAV” won’t cut it.

He agreed that “drone” carries unpleasant baggage, while a term that accurately describes the most common kind of home-use drone could be an upgrade. “‘Quadcopter’ is a better name — nobody knows what the hell that is, but it doesn’t sound as deadly.”

But then Shankman had a more serious suggestion.

“The first thing I’d do is get kids involved,” he said. “Teach them how to build them, how to fly them, put them in STEM classes.”

High-profile accidents and near-collisions
Here’s another genre of drone scare: the one in which people get hurt or killed by drones run amok.

Some of those stories don’t pan out because they’re not about the kinds of drones you can easily buy and fly. For example, one death in Brooklyn a year and a half ago that I’ve seen described as a “drone accident” involved a gasoline-powered, remotely controlled helicopter with “2-foot-long carbon-fiber blades,” not the much smaller, softer plastic blades of consumer-grade quadcopters.

As somebody with 12,000 miles of air travel booked over the next month and a half, I’m more disturbed by reports of idiots flying drones near commercial flight paths — even if they’ve yet to cause a single injury, unlike human-piloted planes.

Coding into drones no-fly zones or, better yet, collision avoidance, could help. But Brian Wynne, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (and a private pilot) warned against putting too much trust in automated systems that can fail, vs. educating drone operators about safety through situational awareness.

We may also need some high-profile convictions, in the same way that cops go after morons who shine laser pointers (a much cheaper implement) at aircraft cockpits.

Drones are strange
Maybe people would have a different attitude about flying robots if they didn’t just appear in news stories about weird drone incidents, but were seen instead as gadgets that helped make agriculture, construction, mining, and other industries safer and more efficient. 

Current policy, however, leaves recreational drone use open, while tightly restricting commercial operation.

“It’s a bit frustrating,” said Jono Millin, co-founder of DroneDeploy, a San Francisco developer of drone-management software. “The hobbyists are still able to do what they’re currently doing,” while businesses with liability insurance and a financial incentive to keep drones in safe working order wait for word from Washington.

It’s not the first time technology has outrun the rules, and we’re all left to make things up as we go. But for “drones,” a little work on policy and public relations could take a lot of fear and mystery out of the equation.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.