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Jessica Leber

A View from Jessica Leber

Warning: When Selling Domestic Drones, Mileage May Vary

As the debate continues over drones in U.S. skies, other countries could show the way.

  • March 22, 2013

When I visited Australia a couple of years back, I picked up the phrase “no worries” which I still use in my speech today. And when it comes to domestic drones, it appears Aussies really are less worried than Americans. 

Stanford University’s VLAB held a panel this week entitled “Drones: The Commercial Era Takes Off.” It was studded with stars of this emerging market: Chris Anderson, the former WIRED editor who left to lead 3D Robotics and DIY Drones; Helen Greiner, the co-founder of the military (and vacuuming) powerhouse iRobot who now leads a venture-backed drone startup; and Jonathan Downey, CEO of Airware, a little-known company that could be building the iOS platform for the drone coming to an airspace near you. The stealthy startup flying a small vehicle above the heads of the mingling crowd was almost a requirement. 

Needless to say, there was plenty of boosterism about the benefits for this technology as products emerge hovering in the $1,000 realm, including for applications like farming, building and infrastructure inspection, and police and fire rescue. And Anderson is right to say drones are approaching that “classic Silicon Valley” sweetspot—the moment when homebrew garage hobbyists start tinkering with a military technology whose components are getting cheaper, opening unknown mass market opportunities. Of course, DIY drone technology has been spurred by the dizzying pace of development of mobile processors and sensors for smartphones. Yet, with drones, there’s enough room for technological advances, such as in computer vision and navigation, that no existing company has any particular application locked up yet. Not even BAE Systems, the aviation and defense contractor, which was also represented on the panel.

Of course, all of this ignores a tiny problem: Silicon Valley may be rife with techno-optimists, but much of  the rest of America, including politicians, associate drones with minor privacy intrusions such as constant military surveillance, or even worse, killing people. The U.S. Senate aired these concerns in a hearing this week. And as the Federal Aviation Administration figures out how to permit flying robots above 400 feet in the air, it is grappling with legitimate though not insurmountable safety questions.

All of which brings me back to Australia. Airware’s Downey, who is selling mostly in other countries for now, including France, Cameroon, India and Kenya, got me wondering which nations are most ahead of America in terms of domestic drone use. BAE Systems Matthey Pobloske mentioned to me that Australia, a massive land mass with relatively few people, might be an interesting country to check out. A few reportorial Googles later and I found out Australia’s aviation authority just proposed its own set of rules for the unmanned skies but is not yet really talking about the ramifications:

In stark contrast to the United States, public opinion in Australia remains finely balanced by disinterest.

The article from ABC in Australia is an interesting read, since there the privacy discussion hasn’t yet been had though there are already a specific set of rules about how drones would be classified. Given the drones already in domestic airspace, the Australian aviation authority worked under the premise that the “cat is out of the bag,” and proposed minimally burdensome regulations it was capable of enforcing. In the U.S., the cat is also out of the bag. To me, for better or worse, all that remains to be seen whether this strange union of the Stanford startup crowd and military-industrial juggernauts gets its way sooner or later. 

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