Drones Grow-Up

Our industry has been growing up!  We should be glad that the authorities are finally starting to prosecute people on the basis of illegal drone flights.  We have finally arrived.  Our industry is now important enough that the authorities are taking action to remove bad operators from our ranks.

There have been two recent high-profile prosecutions of small unmanned systems operators.  First, Raphael Pirker of Team Black Sheep got at $10,000 fine from the FAA that he is vigorously contesting.  You can see the video that got him in trouble below.


Then, the NYPD charged the drone pilot in Manhattan who crashed his drone with reckless endangerment.  He also made a video of his face before the drone took off.

Drone Arrest


Both these incidents are are clearly inappropriate flights, well outside of FAA guidelines for hobbyists and rules for aircraft.  The authorities are doing their job in prosecuting and it is going to improve the industry.  We’ve had a “grey area” in aerial robotics for too long.  Yes, we need better rules and FAA rule making for UAS cannot come soon enough.  In the meantime though, our dislike of the current regulatory structure is not enough for us to substitute our judgement for the FAA’s.  In neither case, is the prosecution talking about destroying the life of the operator.  We are talking about fines and a misdemeanor charge.

These seem like appropriate punishments to remind everyone that there are rules about where we can fly and how.  Much, much more airspace will be open to robotic craft, eventually.  In the meantime, we as an industry have to address the concerns of the non-participating community.  They did not consent to have a quad-copter or any other aircraft falling on their heads.  The manned aviation community has built-up an elaborate system to persuaded the public that they can have some certainty of not killing people, particularly on the ground.

One of the points that is sometimes lost on the robotics community is how well our current regulatory structure actually works.  Most of the economic gains from aviation are being captured.  Commercial flights are cheap and safe–there have been two commercial fatalities in the last four years and it is cheaper in real terms than almost ever before.  All this success in commercial aviation has not precluded general aviation and RC hobbyists from pursing their interests.

We are certainly missing some gains from unmanned aircraft, but the largest applications for civilian use of drones remain undiscovered.  Technology spreads based on benefits, regaldless of the law.  If hobbyist style drones provided tangible benefits that had been discovered they would already be as widespread as, say, illegal file-sharing.  And on movie sets, quad-copters now common, but the movie helicopter shot market is not all that large at any price.  If this analysis is correct, since testing continues on drones of all classes, the FAA’s lethargic pace on the new rules has not had as much adverse impact as many in our industry like to imagine.

Given the only hypothetical benefit and the very real danger of unregulated drone flights it seems imprudent of authorities to let the industry go with no enforcement.  Non-enforcement discourages entry by law-abiding players and erodes the integrity of all firms involved in the industry.  If this is ever going to be more than a few guys out tinkering with electronic toys, the industry will have to show it is responsible enough to operate over people’s heads.  This is not going to happen if we resist and tolerate a disregard for regulation.  Many industries have used regulation to expand their reach, by necessity, the aerial robotic market will be one of them.

Is there an open-source / closed-source dichotomy in robotics?

Is there an open-source / closed-source dichotomy in robotics?

I just put up a new piece over at Robohub discussing how open-source and closed-source can live harmoniously in robotics–because all robots are services.