“So … you really like drones, huh?”
I’ve been getting this leading question a lot lately, often from friends and acquaintances who are mildly surprised that my work at Slate has shifted from sporadic articles about sports and media and my own buffoonery to regular stories about unmanned aerial systems. Sometimes my questioners are excited about this shift, because they themselves are drone enthusiasts and want to pick my brain on the topic. But more often than not, the question is posed in a tone that implies two follow-up questions: “Why do you write so much about drones?” and “Will you please stop writing so much about drones?”
These are both valid questions. Now that we’re approaching the end of the year, I’d like to take a moment to address them.
In many ways, 2015 was the Year of the Drone: the year that unmanned aerial systems normalized to the point where you can now buy them at, like, 7-Eleven. The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that 1.6 million consumer drones will be sold in the United States this year, to people from all walks of life: kids, photographers, gadget enthusiasts, your nosy neighbor. But for every American who loves drones, I’d bet that there are at least 10 more Americans who find them deeply annoying, even alarming. Many of these naysayers are reacting negatively as much to the surrounding hype as to the drones themselves. 2015 has been the Year of the Drone, yes—but the title was not conferred by unanimous consent.
Before we talk about why people do like drones, it’s important to talk about why they don’t. For one thing, people dislike the recklessness with which many drone users have acted while flying their drones in public. If 2015 was the Year of the Drone, then it has also been a year of drone-related mishaps, largely thanks to untrained, inattentive, or heedless drone pilots. Over the course of the year, drones:
- Crashed into sports stadiums
- Nearly collided on an almost-daily basis with passenger jets, small planes, and helicopters
- Flew into a Ferris wheel while people were on the ride
- Impeded firefighting and rescue operations
- Knocked a woman unconscious at a parade
- Stressed out some bears
- Ended up on the White House lawn
- Hovered outside of hospitals
- Caused at least one potential international incident
- Interrupted a public screening of The Princess Bride
- Intruded on countless private gatherings
The list of drone misadventures goes on and on. It would be one thing if these errant drones were just dumb pieces of machinery, like a runaway Roomba with wings. But it’s impossible to separate an unwanted drone sighting from the knowledge that there is a human on the other end of the drone—and that he or she might well be watching you.
People don’t like being watched—or, more accurately, they don’t like feeling like they’re being watched. From the ground it can be hard to tell whether an overhead drone is or is not equipped with a camera, so most people just assume that the drone in question is an uninvited eye in the sky. It is this not-unjustifiable paranoia that leads to people like the “Drone Slayer”—the Kentucky man arrested in July after shooting down a drone that had allegedly crossed onto his property. In October, the criminal case against the Drone Slayer was dismissed, with the judge finding that the defendant was just protecting his right to privacy when he grabbed his shotgun and blasted away.
The Year of the Drone has also been the Year of People Taking the Law Into Their Own Hands in Order to Get Rid of Drones, and though you can argue with the anti-droners’ methods, you can certainly understand their aggravation. The FAA’s new mandatory national drone registry, in effect as of Dec. 21, should go a long ways toward curbing boorish drone pilotry—or, at the very least, should make it easier for the authorities to identify and discipline reckless pilots. But recreational drone users aren’t the only parties guilty of obnoxious behavior during 2015: Drone entrepreneurs and drone hype men also bear some blame.
People don’t like being made to feel obsolete, and much of the pro-drone rhetoric centers around the many tasks that drones will soon be able to complete better and more efficiently than their human counterparts. The Year of the Drone has been a year of unfalsifiable statements, of sizzle sans steak, with every week bringing new and self-serving claims about how drones will revolutionize everything … someday. Drones are the future of package delivery! (At least according to Amazon, a company that stands to make a lot of money if and when it convinces the world that drone delivery is both desirable and imminent.) And infrastructure repair! (At least according to certain agencies and utility companies that stand to save money if they can replace human labor with drone labor.) And bridge building! And sports photography! And mistletoe! (At least according to the good people at Hammacher Schlemmer.)
The hype gets old. I understand. People don’t like being repeatedly told that something will change their lives when it’s clear that that change is by no means imminent. And I’m guilty of hyping some of these things, too. But I do think drones will bring some fundamental changes in the way the world works. That’s why I like to report on the sector. And I think those changes will be more simple than you’d expect.
Earlier in December, I mentioned how camera-equipped drones serve as a new technology of seeing—a new means of apprehending, commemorating, and navigating the world around us. Stop and imagine the many ways in which an easily accessible, high-definition aerial viewpoint might expand your horizons—might make your life easier, or at least more interesting. Maybe it’s just something simple like getting a new vantage for family photographs, or letting you check and see what’s clogging your gutters without having to climb up on the roof. Maybe it’s something more complex, like giving farmers new ways to keep tabs on the performance and health of their crops, or inaugurating new methods of land surveying or resource management. And as drones continue to normalize and the underlying technology continues to improve, their users will find new and unexpected ways to use them
Drones allow their users to see the world differently, and if much of the current discord over their use revolves around fear that they are being used improperly by bad or thoughtless actors, well, I believe that behavioral norms will eventually be established and enforced. Privacy laws will come in time. Good geofencing—essentially, the ability to set up a no-fly drone zone over your house, building, airport, or secure governmental facility—will come in time. (In fact, drone-makers DJI and 3DR have recently rolled out new geofencing systems.) We’re still at the earliest stages here. In 2016, I hope that the world stops focusing so much on what drones might do in the future and takes a minute to recognize what they’re already doing right now. A camera-equipped drone gives people easy access to a camera angle that was heretofore inaccessible. That’s enough. It doesn’t have to do much more than that for it to be a transformative tool.
“So, you really like drones, huh?” Here’s what I always want to say when I get that question: Well, not really. I find them as annoying as you do, probably. But whether I like them or not, I find them fascinating, because I think they will end up transforming the way that we see the world. In 2016, I think I’ll start running into more and more people who feel the same way.
This article is part of a Future Tense series on the future of drones and is part of a larger project, supported by a grant from Omidyar Network and Humanity United, that includes a drone primer from New America. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.