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Decrypted: The State of Drones in America, Today, Tomorrow and Beyond

Drones both commercial and noncommercial face a slew of bureaucratic challenges in the near future.

Editor’s Note: For most of us, the wide world of technology is a wormhole of dubious trends with a side of jargon soup. If it’s not a bombardment of startups and tech trends (minimum viable product, Big Data, billion dollar IPO!) then it’s unrelenting feature mongering (Smart Everything! Siri!). What’s a level-headed guy with a few bucks in his pocket supposed to do? We’ve got an answer, and it’s not a ⌘+Option+Esc. Welcome to Decrypted, a new weekly commentary about tech’s place in the real world. Writer Darren Murph, the former Managing Editor of Engadget and a Guinness World Record holder for number of blog posts published, will spend some weeks demystifying and others criticizing, but it’ll all be in plain english. So take off your headphones, settle in for something longer than 140 characters and prepare to wise up.

A decade ago, someone may have been wise enough to predict a smartphone revolution in the U.S. But drones? Fat chance. Also known as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and UASs (unmanned aircraft systems), drones are effectively toy planes — incredibly advanced, wildly multifaceted toy planes. Remote-controlled flying apparatuses have been around for ages, but it wasn’t until humanity figured out that you could strap a camera and a claw to one that these things really captured the imagination of more enterprising individuals. My personal revelation came at CES in 2012, when a bevy of buzzing aircraft outside the show drew crowds of onlookers.

These days, it’s becoming all too clear that the U.S. government can’t react quickly enough to growing demand for drone usage. While those who fixate on evening news probably associate “drone” with the missile-equipped variant used as a weapon in the field of war, there’s an entire branch of drones that have far more gleeful intentions. At issue, however, is how and when these drones can fly. As with any new technology that infringes on space that the government controls (airspace, in this example), drones too face a slew of bureaucratic challenges. Let’s take a look at where things stand today, what’s at stake, and what the future could hold.

Today: You really can’t blame lawmakers for not anticipating the sudden rise in demand for commercial drone use. Presently, you’re allowed to operate a small drone below 400 feet almost anywhere in the United States so long as it’s for “noncommercial purposes”. (National Parks, airports, and military bases are notable exceptions; you can view a map of no-drone zones here.) In other words, hobbyists can fly remotely-controlled aircraft till their hearts are content, just as they’ve always done. They don’t have to check in with the FAA, and they don’t have to worry about their joyrides interfering with the thousands of airliners crisscrossing the country on a daily basis.

The issue here is the “noncommercial” part. While flying a drone for leisure is sure nifty, today’s drones are capable of much more. Filmmakers in particular have started to lobby Congress to relax rules and grant exceptions so that drones can be used to hoist expensive cameras high up in the air and capture the kind of footage that usually requires a pricey helicopter rental. Closer to the tech space, both Amazon and Google have confirmed that they’re testing drone-based package delivery. Essentially, these two view drones as the next logical leap in logistics. Rather than routing a package via the conventional means, drones would allow rapid delivery directly to one’s yard or porch; in urban areas, it’s conceivable that a small order could leave a warehouse and arrive within a half-hour. In testing, these drones have had little issue hauling boxes under five pounds at up to 50 miles per hour. But because of the strict drone rules in the United States, testing thus far has been limited to spacious indoor facilities and in more amenable nations such as Australia.

Tomorrow: Commercial drone demand has reached a point where laws will simply have to adapt. At some point, copyright laws didn’t take the Internet into account, but with enough pressure, that changed. I suspect that we’re at a similar tipping point with respect to using drones for business. Amazon, a huge boon to the U.S. economy and a major employer in Washington state, has already planted a bug in Congress’s ear that it wants permission to test its Prime Air delivery drones outdoors near its Seattle headquarters. And, as you’d expect, it’s doing a bit more than just begging. Paul Misener, head of global public policy for Amazon, phrased the request as such: “Of course, Amazon would prefer to keep the focus, jobs and investment of this important research and development initiative in the United States.”

Translation? If the U.S. government doesn’t loosen its drone restrictions, we’re taking our dollars to other countries.

A similar tune is being sung in Hollywood. Expendables 3 features a ridiculous action sequence that could only be captured via drone. The crew attached a camera to a small flying device and remotely flew it alongside a train and a helicopter. Ziv Marom, owner of the drone camera-services company ZM Interactive, explained it as such: “We shot everything from chasing tanks to explosions to flying over buildings and motorcycle jumps. We can also do shots that a real helicopter can’t do. We can do lower altitudes.”

These folks would surely love to do such shots in their own backyard, but due to drone laws, the entire scene — and the millions of dollars surrounding it — was shot in Bulgaria. That’s money that could’ve been spent in the United States. Now that dollars and cents are involved, it should be just a matter of time before rules are loosened or exceptions are more widely granted.

Beyond: Assuming the United States puts in place a process whereby businesses can utilize drones, we’re in for a far more exciting and efficient future. The current process for shipping goods is remarkable, but drones would enable the kind of personal delivery service that was a pipe dream not long ago. Amazon says that some 80 percent of its orders are for packages that total five pounds or less, which means that 80 percent of its deliveries could — in theory — would be eligible for drone delivery.

With most priced between $300 and $3,000, drones are far more economical than helicopters and automobiles, and they open a Pandora’s Box of creative business opportunities. They’re easy to transport and highly adaptive; you could use a drone to film a movie one day and deliver packages the next. Beyond all of that, it’s not terribly difficult to envision a world where medical supplies could be dropped into volatile areas of the world via drone. In rural areas, bartering deals could be exchanged via drone instead of by foot, saving both parties hours (or days) of transit time. Entirely new businesses could emerge to solve immediate issues — if you’ve ever found yourself knee-deep in a carpentry project, only to discover that you need one additional screw, an on-demand drone service could supply that part at minimal cost. That kind of flexibility simply cannot be achieved using planes, trains, and automobiles.

My hunch is that the current regulations will be lifted in (relatively) short order, but that won’t come cheaply. As with motor vehicles and boats, it’s likely that those seeking drones for use in commercial operations will be required to register each vessel, carry insurance for each, and perhaps even consent to having flight paths monitored. It wouldn’t be America without a little red tape, right?

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