Here comes the drone backlash

Soon it will be politically incorrect to express enthusiasm for drones or fly them in public. Too bad. Drones are cool.

Close-up of drone in sky
Credit: Thinkstock

Consumer drone technology is barely taking off, and already a harsh public backlash is growing.

Your typical garden variety consumer drone is lightweight, battery operated, has four propellers and is controlled by a smartphone. Most have cameras and beam back live video, which can be recorded for posterity. Some are equipped with high-quality HD cameras and are capable of taking stunning photos and videos from their lofty vantage points.

Drones are fun. They're exciting. They're accessible. But increasingly, they're becoming unacceptable.

I'm sensing a growing backlash, a kind of social media pitchfork mob against drones and drone fans. It's only a matter of time, and not much time, before it will be politically incorrect to express any kind of enthusiasm for drones in polite company. I fear that many are about to embrace an "everybody knows drones are bad" mentality that will suppress the nascent industry and spoil this innovative and exhilarating technology.

Here's what's driving the coming backlash:

1. They're called drones

We used the D word for everything from massive, weaponized aircraft-carrier-launched unmanned aerial vehicles that drop bombs to hobbyist quadcopters that fit in a backpack. The word drone is fun and easy to use, but for the fearful it makes these aircraft sound more dangerous than they are.

2. Most people don't have drones

Consumer drones are particularly vulnerable to social stigma because anyone could be affected -- threatened, violated, harassed, annoyed -- but most people won't actually participate. For the majority of people, drones are something "they" use that could affect "me."

Contrast drones to smartphones, the use of which is far more likely to annoy you and invade your privacy, but which is socially accepted because pretty much everybody has one.

3. The media neo-luddite impulse

I'll tell you a little secret about the mass media, which you probably already intuited: They pander to the neo-luddites in their audiences. Watch the 6 o'clock news, and it will be filled with a feigned "oh, gosh, this new-fangled technology is really moving too fast" mentality, even as they use Perceptive Pixel displays and holograms to report the news.

Plus, anytime drones interfere with, say, firefighters, it's always going to be big news.

You can be sure that the mass media reporting will always fall on the side of being vexed and put off by quadcopters.

4. Pandering politicians

When politicians see a parade, they scramble to get in front and pretend to lead it. As the public turns against drones, there will be grandstanding hearings and calls for the Federal Aviation Administration to institute controls and bans.

Scaremongering wins elections.

5. Innumeracy

The public is very bad at weighing the relative risks and benefits of anything. Media reports like to throw out big numbers.

The best example: Drones have been reported buzzing, harassing and threatening airplanes recently. The occurrence is so common that 12 incidents were reported in a single day recently and a total of 700 were reported so far this year.

Wow! That sounds horrible. Of course, any number of drones flying near any number of planes is too many. There's no question about that.

But how much actual risk is buried in those 700 reports?

For starters, some unknown number of them involve a case of mistaken identity. One widely reported incident in the news involved a United Airlines pilot who said a drone struck his airplane. Less widely reported was that a subsequent investigation found that it was actually a bird strike.

In fact, almost none of these reports involve actual strikes. A pilot sees -- or thinks he sees -- a drone "over there" somewhere. It has to be reported. And, in fact, anything inside the airport fence or in airspace used for takeoff and landing is unacceptable and must be reported.

But to put the number 700 in perspective, let's compare it to the 13,759 reported cases of wildlife strikes, mostly birds, in 2014.

Unlike the drone reports, these aren't sightings of animals "over there." They're reports of actual contact (usually violent, fatal to the animal and potentially life-threatening to passengers) between animals and airplanes.

Some experienced pilots are starting to push back against the hysteria over drones, pointing out that, compared with bird strikes, drones are nothing to be alarmed about.

In fact, it's likely that drones could be used by airports to chase away birds and other animals and prevent dangerous contact with aircraft.

6. Fear of loss of control

By their very nature, drones represent a loss of control by non-participants. Drones can fly fast, fall out of the sky and come at you with their propellers spinning. The idea of drones flying around taps into the innate fear of a loss of control of one's environment that some people have.

7. Invasion of privacy

Drones usually have cameras. They can look over fences, fly over private spaces and record what's going on. They're seen as a potential invasion of privacy.

While most of these reasons for fear are overblown, most of them have validity at some level. They are reasons for fear. But ultimately, fear and its ugly cousin -- a panicky mob attitude that would make the use of drones politically ostracizing -- is not the answer.

The answer to technology that bothers or threatens people is almost always better technology.

Here's why we all need to resist the coming backlash against drones:

1. Drones are actually pretty safe

The majority of consumer drones are pretty harmless. They're light. Their rotors don't cut when they come in contact with human flesh. Flying a drone is infinitely safer than driving, crossing a busy street, riding bicycles, using gardening tools, using kitchen knives, taking prescription drugs, eating junk food, experiencing stress and any number of things we all accept as everyday realities.

2. Drones can be designed to be much safer and better

If we were to compare the state of drone development to the history of, say, mobile phones, drones are currently in their Motorola DynaTAC stage.

Over the next year, five years and 10 years, drones will become better in every way -- safer, more automated and quieter, and they will gain capabilities we can't even imagine today.

3. Drones can be programmed to avoid anything

The beauty of drones -- compared with, say, model aircraft, kites, ultralights, hot air balloons, sport pilot airplanes and all the other things flying around (including birds) -- is that drones can be easily programmed to never fly near airports, populated areas or the White House.

Multiple projects now in the works at NASA, Google, Amazon and elsewhere will result in an automated drone air traffic control system that will determine where drones can fly and where they can't. Unlike the airplane air traffic control system, the drone version will be automated and will keep drones in check without human intervention.

4. Drones will save far more lives than they put at risk

Drones can be instantly deployed in disasters to find survivors and deliver emergency supplies. They can save people from drowning in waters too dangerous for human lifeguards. They can serve as robot paramedics, prevent avalanches and give firefighters life-saving information on how and where a forest fire is progressing. Random quadcopter enthusiasts can even spot sharks that surfers can't see.

Many of these life-saving technologies are funded or subsidized by the consumer drone craze.

5. Drones are awesome

While the cringing fearmongers freak everybody out with warnings of drones posing a threat to life and limb, it's a great idea once in a while to think about what life is really all about.

Drones represent an exhilarating freedom of expression and the potential of low-cost and extraordinary consumer technology. Drone photography and videography bring stunning beauty into our lives, and show us a new vantage point from which to love the world. (Check out the video my son recorded during his wedding dinner.)

Surely all that has to be worth something.

Still, the backlash is coming. And it's too bad, too, because drones are awesome.

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