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The Great Drone Debate

Classifying anything as the “next big thing” can be a bit of a gamble. It creates an inordinate amount of pressure to deliver nothing less than epic results. It also projects a cult-like status onto some of the best inventions, the ones bursting with potential, before they even had a chance to get off the ground.

Today, drones are not only a hot topic of conversation from websites to hobby shops to research labs, but also on Capitol Hill where legislators are debating how many (or few) regulations are needed in a world poised to become populated with these smart high fliers.

Not only have drones soared into cultural consciousness ever since the first unmanned aerial vehicles were introduced by the military in the 1990s, their entrance into the mainstream consumer sector has sparked debate over usage rights, privacy and security that’s not going away anytime soon. As these devices become even more popular among average hobbyists and pros alike, constructive national dialogues have taken place, particularly regarding privacy. For example, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) hosted a “multi-stakeholder” meeting that recently concluded with consensus privacy and security best practices for drone operators.

According to CTA, sales of drones in the U.S. will top 2.8 million units this year, up almost 150 percent from the year before. By 2017, we can expect the number to skyrocket. CTA predicts there could conceivably be as many as one million drone flights per day in the U.S. by 2025, but only under the right policy environment.

Interestingly, it’s only been about six years since drones have actually been available to consumers. Up until the first drone, the Parrot AR, debuted at CES in 2010, these space-age devices, a big step up from the remote-controlled helicopters we played with as kids, were largely used in the military for reconnaissance considered too dangerous for humans. George Lucas also planted a seed when he introduced dronelike devices into his legendary Star Wars franchise. Like jet packs and augmented and virtual reality, drones are enjoying a kind of Hollywood status come to life.

They’ve come a long way since they first lifted off at trade shows and shopping malls. The latest models tout even smaller, more lightweight high-resolution cameras with high frame rates, improved stabilization, as well as smartphone controls and a range of features like obstacle avoidance systems and “follow me” functions. Today’s drones are being used widely by photographers, would-be cinematographers, first responders and scientists. And though the technology is improving rapidly with new models being released each season, drones really haven’t strayed too far from their roots. They’re still being used creatively to chronicle the world around us while inviting important questions about usage.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Unmanned Aircraft Systems Registration Task Force and Micro UAS Aviation Rulemaking Committee are examples of recent and successful collaboration between the private sector, including the aviation and technology sectors, and the FAA. The consensus recommendations they have made will likely influence FAA decisions on how drones will be used and regulated for years to come, both in the U.S. and around the world.

The next phase of regulatory talk will be less about what laws are passed than who gets to pass them. Will the federal government’s jurisdiction on most drone-related matters be respected, or will legislation be sewn into a complex patchwork of state and local laws? What’s at stake for both drone makers and users is the possibility of limitations depending on location.There’s a danger in overzealous regulation of drone technology. Many innovative opportunities exist for drones, ranging from the most practical (a small drone controlled by your smartphone) to the humanitarian (a drone that transports blood samples and life-saving medication in remote areas).

Drones as we know them star in the movies they help make, they give artists new methods to create, and they are helping to search and rescue, make scientific discoveries and literally save lives. Drones provide something new well beyond the tech world, and as such, they also inspire a lot of questions.

On the consumer level, CTA has been working closely with the FAA on the use of smaller drones. The “Know Before You Fly” consumer campaign educates pilots about smart and safe drone operation. Ideally, tech groups will be able to work more closely with legislators to determine how best to create realistic guidelines that protect people, but don’t necessarily restrict progress. To date, almost half of the 13 states with specific drone policies adopted laws detrimental to drone use and future innovation. Lobbyists on both sides of the issue are engaging legislators every day – the work being done now will impact how we use and access drones in the future.

For the average flier, who may be taking his drone out for a tour of the neighborhood, the debate may seem miles away. But as more real-life adopters emerge, there will be more at stake. It’s not a matter of whether drones will be deployed, but how we decide to deal with their potential benefits and risks.

ABI Research says that the phenomenal growth of drones is expected to continue as the technology enjoys even more mainstream attraction among hobbyists. Drones are unusual in that they have earned a kind of Jekyll and Hyde reputation. On one hand you have the devices used in war, drones that are well documented on the nightly news. On the other, there are YouTube channels dedicated to drone videos that are beautiful, funny and downright mesmerizing.

An interesting key to this complicated debate could be distinguishing between the two, even if public perception is not easily swayed in our fast-paced digital world dominated by unlimited data, memes and, well, short attention spans.

Natalie Hope McDonald