We Need To Rethink Our Attitude To Drones, Fast

Flickr by Richard Unten

When drones first burst onto the scene a decade ago, few people saw them as anything more than toys. Yes, there were military drones, but they were more like pilotless aircraft than something with applications in industry. Today, though, the view of drones has changed. Sure, toymakers are doing well from them, but entrepreneurs and other technologically-savvy thinkers believe that drones could make a big difference to productivity in the future.

Imagine the following. Suppose you’re a farmer and you want to inspect your crops for pests or weeds so that you know where to spray. Right now, you’d have to spray the entire field because it’s just not economically-viable to spend time trudging up and down identifying the places you need to spray and those you don’t. But now imagine you have a fleet of autonomous drones that do that for you. The drones set off at first light at use their onboard cameras to look at crops and identify weeds. The drones then feed their data wirelessly back to a computer which then uploads GPS instructions to a herbicide-dispenser on a tractor, telling it exactly where to apply the spray.

It sounds like a bit of a sci-fi idea, but drones could make it possible, just like they could make next-hour delivery a reality. Drones could even help do things like pick up litter.

However, the brakes have been on commercial drones. It’s not a technology problem, but rather a regulatory problem. Authorities are yet to catch up to the idea that drones, rather like motor vehicles, are dangerous but indispensable technologies. Yes, there’s a risk that irresponsible drone owners will fly their vehicles into the engines of oncoming aircraft, but thousands of people die on the roads every year, and nobody is suggesting that we limit car usage (except for a few safety and environmental enthusiasts).

Our current attitude towards drones seems to put safety imperatives first without considering the significant benefits that they could bring to all our lives. Uninhibited by regulation, there’s no telling what applications entrepreneurs might find for this exciting new technology. Drones can move and see at the same time, unlike smartphones, making them infinitely more useful for a wide variety of tasks. Drones could become workhorses in some industries.

But as the recent shutdown of Gatwick airport in the UK demonstrated, drones are feared – even if they’re not actually there. It’s true that they are dangerous, but we need to remember that if we don’t use them and develop the technology, we might miss out on a host of incredible benefits.

Drones today are becoming far more powerful than those in the past. Batteries are safer and denser than before, providing greater range. And onboard software is giving drones the ability to see and interpret their surroundings, offering a number of important use-cases. Will they become critical to our economy? Only if we let them. And right now, we’re doing everything we can with regulation to stop them from taking over the world.

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