Much of the coverage of unmanned aerial vehicles — more commonly known as drones — has been against using the aircraft. Look no further than the piece that ran on John Oliver’s HBO show a few weeks ago to see how the media is savaging, and the public is receiving, these aircraft.
We hear a lot about the nasty realities of modern drone usage — the targeted strikes that kill indiscriminately and the surveillance operations that concern privacy advocates. The side of the story we hear far less often is that of the large, military aircraft’s smaller brethren: the UAVs that have demonstrated significant advantages with disaster relief, search and rescue, conservation, forest fire detection and scientific research efforts. Unfortunately, myths persist publicly and in Congress there is no middle ground between libertarian-leaning privacy advocates who oppose drones and those who are in favor of them.
Look at the agricultural uses that UAVs can provide. Today, a pizza-box size drone-and-camera system costing as little as $1,500 can track moisture, weeds, parasites, crop growth and livestock with extreme precision. These are tasks that farmers otherwise have to hire a pilot and plane to perform, costing upwards of $10,000 each time.
Or consider a more timely applicability. Small, non-military UAVs equipped with sensitive infrared technology flying over dense population centers or crowds — here and abroad — could identify individuals with higher-than-average temperatures who may be developing the early symptoms of Ebola infection. The potential for outbreak would be severely diminished and the disease’s spread could be more effectively controlled.
There are scores of similarly advantageous uses, but UAV advocates face an uphill battle in educating lawmakers on the Hill and the electorate. Libertarians, privacy advocates and other skeptics have mounted a sincere campaign that is already taking root. They have been incredibly effective in swaying public opinion and influencing Congress, state legislatures, municipalities, law enforcement and federal agencies — all of whom have various levels of jurisdiction and unique stakes in ensuring that drones operate safely on American soil.
These stakeholders have been and will continue to be aggressively exercising their oversight and approvals of UAV deployment. They’ve raised their concerns about the importance of safety for UAV operation and of ensuring that privacy for all Americans is respected. They’ve heightened public perceptions that drones will be colliding in mid-air and crashing down on our streets and cities. And they’ve left the UAV industry and its advocates with a challenging case to make for why drones will positively impact our lives.
However, they haven’t run away with the victory flag just yet.
While the movement has its vocal parties, it has not yet reached a critical mass on either side, so opportunities abound, chiefly through regulatory rulemakings and in advance of similar appeals from comedians to write their representatives. Thus, the industry is faced with a moment where they can choose to act, proactively and clearly messaging the solutions presented by this technology and presenting its commitment to addressing these issues. In doing so, they will seize the opportunity to tear down the existing barriers to broad, nationwide adoption.
To achieve success, groups such as the Small UAV Coalition must clearly and concisely highlight these valuable uses while leveraging diverse stakeholders from each of these areas — such as sports teams and media organizations — to create a broad coalition that tells the story of how UAVs will improve our life. All of the industry, from hobbyists to behemoths like Amazon Prime Air and Google will benefit in tremendous ways.
A countermovement to the opponents is already beginning. Just recently, the Sierra Club magazine talked about overcoming the stigma of drones in their article, “Flying a Fine Line.” They argue that not all UAVs are used for spying, intrusion or lethal missions in the Middle East. To wit, the positives can make a profound impact.
If UAV opponents succeed, the industry will be grounded before it can take off. We will never see the ways that civil applications of UAVs can protect privacy and revolutionize our lives in the same way that the Internet, cheap airfare and ride sharing have. There is a clear, compelling story to be told, but the industry has yet to do it.
If they begin, and if they take advantage of the present opportunity, policymakers in Congress and beyond will have no option but to take notice. They will be better equipped to make smart decisions that allow the numerous consumer applications to flourish and to do so in a responsible way. They will be able to protect our rights while not discarding the entire potential of a new — and admittedly, disruptive — technology.
Because like all disruptive technologies, we need these smart policies and we need them now more than ever. As a nation, we are at juncture where we can abandon the United States’ ability to lead the world in a globally-burgeoning industry or we can realize the virtues of having safe, unique, and invaluable UAV operations in our skies. In order to accomplish that, the industry needs to realize they are at a similar juncture, where they can engage advocates to speak to Congress by telling the story in a clear and compelling way, or continue to cede ground to those who are short-sighted in the possibilities before us.
Patrick Pannett is a vice president at LEVICK, a Washington, D.C.-based communications firm.