Opinion

opinion | Mary Cummings

Drones on and on and on

US needs to join the aviation revolution

Francis Blake for the Boston Globe

Last week’s announcement that Amazon is testing the delivery of packages with small drones has created a media storm, and seems to have taken most people by surprise. Many thought this was simply just a trick to boost sales for Cyber Monday, and is not a near-term reality. They could not be more wrong.

In other countries, drones have already found their way into commercial settings. In Japan, drones make up more than 90 percent of all crop dusters, an extremely dangerous job for human pilots. In Britain, drones can deliver food to your table at a restaurant and pizza to your home. In South Africa, music festival fans have been treated to aerial beer delivery using a smartphone app.

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Drones, substantially cheaper to operate than their manned equivalents, make the tracking of endangered animals easier and safer, and are critical for anti-poaching efforts worldwide. Drones have found not only people crossing the US border illegally, but also lost hikers who may have otherwise perished. They are revolutionizing precision agriculture, allowing farmers to substantially reduce costs and improve productivity by having real-time access to crop health information.

Not just good for delivering your Amazon purchases, drones will soon deliver medical supplies in developing countries, or even in hard-to-reach places in our own country. In the farther future, first response will be revolutionized by robotic air ambulances that can land in bad weather and in places, like high mountaintops, that are extremely dangerous or impossible for humans to reach.

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In addition to more routine uses like air quality and environmental monitoring, drones are even found in the entertainment industry, assisting in filming difficult shots and also performing on stage. In short, within a generation, we will see an aviation revolution that will rival that of the Wright Brothers era. We are just now at the tipping point.

Safety has been a hotly debated topic, and it is true that the overall safety rate of drones in the past 20 years is worse than for other aircraft. However, this comparison is akin to the accident rate for the fledging aviation community in 1920. The more important drone safety milestone was achieved last year, when the US military drone safety record for the previous year was better than for manned fighters and bombers.

If this trend continues, commercial drone operations could achieve parity with manned aircraft within a generation. However, drones are currently not allowed to operate in the US national airspace for profit, and researchers are allowed to conduct drone operations only after a long Federal Aviation Administration certification process, and only under very restrictive conditions. Curiously, any private drone operator can fly one as long as it stays under 400 feet and away from populated areas.

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With Amazon’s entry into the commercial drone market, innovations will now happen much more rapidly. The commercial drone market is a much-needed shot in the arm for an ailing aerospace industry, and will likely leapfrog military drone development, especially in software advances.

Free of the sphere of military dominance, unprecedented innovation in drones will take place, revolutionizing the global economy. However, regulatory apathy and cultural bias, which are substantial in the United States, are the primary obstacles to such growth in the US drone industry.

In 2012, Congress mandated that the FAA fully integrate drones into the national airspace by 2015. The FAA, understandably a conservative agency, has moved slowly toward this goal, recently releasing a drone road map 10 months late. Moreover, the six experimental test sites that would be used to determine exactly how to conduct drone operations were supposed to be named by August 2012, and despite 25 proposals for these test sites, none has been named to date.

If this kind of sluggish approach toward drone integration continues, it is likely that the United States will not achieve drone integration into the national airspace by 2015 — and that companies like Amazon will take their business elsewhere, like the United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan. Recently the Association for Unmanned Systems International estimated that the United States is losing $10 billion a year by not having access to the national airspace.

Unless we address the regulatory aspects soon, we will watch the imminent commercial drone revolution happen overseas. Congress needs to hold the FAA’s feet to the fire before this technology takes flight and leaves the US commercial market behind.

Mary Cummings is director of the MIT Humans and Automation Laboratory.
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