VLAB: Drones – the commercial era takes off, but breaking the law is going to blow-up in our faces

Last Tuesday, I had the pleasure of attending VLAB: Drones – The Commercial Era Takes Off at Stanford GSB.   The event was truly fantastic and the panel was amazing.  The moderator was Chris Anderson, former editor at Wired and CEO of 3D robotics.  I’m really struck by how much he has become the face of the commercial drone industry.  From his appearances on NPR and print media, he’s probably the most recognized drone advocate.  He makes some very powerful points.  Fueled by Moore’s Law and the cellphone industry supply chain, unmanned aircraft technology is coming and we’ve got to prepare for it.  Like it or not, the drone/robotic era is coming–it doesn’t have to be scary–all kinds of things are possible.

VLAB Drones Panel at Stanford GSB March 19th, 2013

VLAB Drones Panel from left to right: Chris Anderson, 3D Robotics; Helen Greiner, Cyphy Works; Zach Schildhorn, Lux Capital; Jonathan Downey, Airware; Matthew Pobloske, BAE

The one theme that deserves the attention of our industry at large, promoted by Chris Anderson, was that many people in our industry are operating in a “legal gray area” (read: violating regulations because they think the regulations are stupid and won’t be enforced) and that operating in the “gray area” is a good thing that will force regulatory movement.  Anderson gave two examples of this “gray area.” He talked about how ridiculous it was to be violating export controls by turning Lego Mindstorms into what could be considered a cruise missile guidance system.  Later he talked about flying drones in contravention to the FAA regulations governing the use of unmanned aircraft.

The FAA regulations are pretty clear, and let’s stipulate that they are stupid.  However they are the rules, and they have worked pretty well for the FAA’s primary goal of keeping people from getting killed by aircraft.  Technologists in general and Silicon Valley in particular take a dim view of regulations promulgated under the old order (e.g. Lyft, Uber, AirBnB).  I’m not completely outraged when technologists facilitate contract formation between consenting adults, even if local regulation contravene some of the particulars of the contracts.  However, let’s be clear that is absolutely not what we’re talking about when it comes to aircraft.

When it comes to aircraft–manned or unmanned–one of the main beneficiaries of regulation is the people on the ground.  This isn’t renting your room to some strangers who choose to be there; it is hurtling a heavy object over the heads of people who haven’t consented to be part of an experiment.  Our society rightly asks the government to ensure that activities that impose risk on others, especially those that did not consent, be minimized.  We need to update our regulations, but aircraft operators need to respect the letter and spirit of the law as it stands.  What standards do we have if not the law?   If we follow the path of breaking all the rules, someone is going to accidentally kill a  sympathetic bystander.  Beyond the personal tragedy that will create, that accident will set back our industry and the benefits we can provide to society by a decade.

In Afghanistan, one of my planes almost smacked into a helicopter–but it was the helicopter, not the drone–who had come, without clearance or radio calls, into an active artillery firing ROZ (restricted operating zone–an airspace control measure to make sure that aircraft don’t run into artillery fire).  Similarly, the first full sized drone and manned aircraft collision had the C-130 violating airspace control measures around the airfield.  Pilots are not infallible and often break the rules.   The best drone operators have a different safety culture.  Military drone safety culture is one where there is proper approval for everything, because every move will be recorded and second guessed.  I hope this culture will permeate the civilian unmanned aircraft community as well.

Although breaking the rules might move us toward our unmanned enabled future a little bit faster, this is an incredibly dangerous path for our industry and our bystanders.  The closing thought of VLAB Drones was that unmanned aircraft will eventually make the airspace safer for all users.  The panel wondered if this was hyperbole, but it is inevitable when drones have a strong safety culture.  Conversely, as long as we are the irresponsible jerks of the air, safety conscious regulators–like the FAA –will be unsupportive of us flying.    When we, as a civilian unmanned aircraft industry, can be counted on as strong safety partner, and when general aviation and commercial aviation are learning safety lessons from us, there will be no more foot dragging.  We will get our airspace and the drone revolution will finally be here.

In the meantime, seriously, don’t do anything that could kill anyone, please–especially if it is illegal.  You will ruin it for the rest of us.

Let’s hear more about the Drone as an urban legend

Security Camera

Gizmodo has an article about drones in popular fiction.  I’d like to hear more about how the drone became the vehicle for our society’s deepest fears.  As a former drone unit leader, it doesn’t seem all that different from artillery or security cameras.  In fact, while I was in theater we had rocket artillery with a longer range than the drones my unit used and security towers with better cameras.  Unmanned aircraft are not nearly as capable as the people who are scared of them would have you believe.

I understand that new weapons generally scare people, but if we want to be scared of a horrible weapon that can truly alter society perhaps we could go back to worrying about nuclear weapons.  I guess it would be too much to think we do something that would promote nuclear disarmament and nuclear energy.

And if we want to worry about our civil liberties, we should be most concerned about cell phones.  I realize those don’t seem threatening because they are in our pockets right now, but if you’re reading this blog, you’re being monitored by half a dozen organizations–none of them are using a drone.  Chew on that one…

Military Robots: No Reason to Freak Out

As a robotic warfare veteran, there are three common misperceptions about the use of robots in warfare that I’d like to address.

Misperception #1: There is some sort of ethical quandary or challenge in using robotic weapons.

There is no controversy about the legality or ethics of current and contemplated robotic weapons. The controversy is manufactured.   There are legitimate concerns about the ethics of the campaigns these weapons are used in.  Western law and ethics tell us that necessity (a true and ethical need to attack a target), proportionality (minimizing unnecessary destruction), and discrimination (minimizing the destruction targets that are prohibited or non-combatant) are all required for legal and moral use of force.  Despite the ceaseless talk of civilian casualties, robots and drones enable unprecedented proportionality and discrimination.  The statistical record of even the most controversial program shows that these systems are among the most precise and humane weapons in history.

An RQ-7B "Shadow" unmanned aircraft from the author's unit exhibiting icing from operations in Afghanistan.

An RQ-7B “Shadow” unmanned aircraft from the author’s unit exhibiting icing from operations in Afghanistan.

Having seen the war in Afghanistan, I am sympathetic to the idea that the United States has gone too far in the Global War on Terror.  However, resorting to debate over the means obscures the real question we face as a democracy: Should we be engaged in this war at all?  If we decide that we should be engaged in war, robotic weapons represent a huge improvement in almost all ways over 19 year olds with automatic weapons.

I saw first-hand how horrible this path is.  When troops of the 82nd Airborne Division (one of the most elite in the U.S. Army) came to relieve my brigade, the first thing they did was shoot a farmer because he was “armed” with a shovel.  I could go on about the pregnant women, families, and the doctors shot at by convoys and check points, the botched raids by uber-elite units… Let us not delude ourselves: no matter how it is conducted, war is a horrible, disgusting business.  If the alternative to war is so horrible that a war is justified, our values demand that we conduct war with most proportionality and discrimination that we muster.  With a drone strike, the decisions are being made with better intelligence, certainty of review, in places removed from the fear and chaos of a firefight, and in accordance with procedures.  So much so that lawyers literally stand with the commanders ordering a drone strike to review it before it happens.

Misperception #2: Drones and robots will change the way that militaries relate to societies.

Some inventions change the way that militaries and societies relate by changing who is in charge and how society will be managed.  For example, the Phalanx allowed the first rise of democratic society, the mounted knight enforced feudalism, and electronic and atomic weapons required the creation of the bureaucratic state.   Other inventions change warfare for soldiers but do not affect how the military relates to society.  Britannia ruled the seas under both sail and steam, and the flintlock was replaced by the percussion cap, but societies didn’t have to evolve as a result.  The entry of robotics into warfare will likely not change the relation of militaries to societies.  Robotics are a natural growth of and response to precision weapons. The same classes of people and similar organizations are needed for both robotic and precision weapons systems.  Military robotics are the next stage of development for weapons we’ve had for the whole electronic age.  If the surveillance state becomes a reality, it will be cellphones – not drones – that bring it about.

Misperception #3: Military organizations will continue on as before with robotic weapons

Lost in the sound and fury about drones is an understanding of their true nature for the military.  The value of a military drone is not in weapons, hours of endurance, or even keeping pilots out of harm’s way.  The value is in giving the commander and his staff the most information-privileged position on the battlefield.  Especially on the fast-moving, post-WWI, mechanized battlefield, commanders had to be close to the main effort to make the best decisions.  Forces were positioned and organized to support the maneuver of the main effort.

Contemporary technology, particularly networks and robotics, pushes the military in other directions.  Information is most available at network hubs where information from multiple sources can be fused by a staff.  Forces are spread out to guard and support dispersed operations.  Smaller groups and smaller platforms are more capable when used in conjunction with supporting networks.  Even services that have used drones and robots extensively have not found the optimum model for organizing and supervising the systems they will need on the battlefield of the future.  The political and budgetary systems that oversee the military have not grasped how resources need to be allocated to make the forces of the future.