Tech in the Sky

Written by Sara Du. Edited by Shreya Agrawal.

There are no birds in sight.

That low buzzing noise isn’t coming from some enormous bug either. You suddenly notice a small shadow on the sidewalk. When you look up, you spot a metallic object hovering high overhead.

Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see a drone at the park, the beach, or just somewhere along a road. From far away, the untrained eye may not even notice the tiny outline of a drone, but on closer inspection, they resemble the stuff of dystopian movies. With their 4K cameras in constant motion, you can’t tell if they’re looking at you or just admiring the view.

It’s definitely creepy if you consider the possibility that somebody might be watching you from afar.

In fact, much of the news coverage in recent years has put an emphasis on the negative aspect of drones. There have been stories about drones wandering into backyards and being shot down by property owners and others about drones being put to use in terrorist attacks. All of this has served to foster a sense of paranoia, which is, to a certain extent, justified.

Up until recently, there was little regulation in the drone industry.

The fact that there were no rules preventing drones from going onto private property, or even guidelines preventing drones from entering the airspace above homes, became an increasingly concerning issue as the popularity of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) only continued to increase. With the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expecting the sale of UAVs to hit 7 million by the year 2020, it became necessary for the government to get into action.

The start of a new era in drone regulation really began with an incident in Washington. Long story short, a drunk man crashed his drone onto the grounds of the White House and sparked a huge outburst. It suddenly dawned on people that this could happen to them. Drones had opened up a whole other realm: The air.

In response to the incident, the FAA released a stricter set of rules in June 2016 for the use of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) in U.S. airspace. Drones could only be operated at certain heights, at certain times, and in certain weather conditions. However, interestingly enough, there was no mention of flying over private property. At the moment, the rules on this are still not clear. Because the FAA regulates the airspace from the ground up to 500 feet (though nobody officially owns it), homeowners technically do not own the air above their homes. However, in certain circumstances, like when a drone is flown recklessly or causing a nuisance, an individual can file a complaint. In any case, nobody can grant or deny permission to their airspace.

For now, drone regulation still has a long way to go. Drone technology too, still has much to improve on. As fun as they can be, the propellers on drones pose a huge safety issue when flying in public spaces. The noise that drones produce is almost problematic in suburban and rural areas.

As government regulation catches up to UAV popularity, private companies have also taken a step forward. The leading drone manufacturer, DJI, rewrote its software after the White House incident, and now all of its drones are prevented from entering protected airspace or sensitive areas. The rules that DJI has baked into its drones applies internationally. While taking off in a sensitive area in China, my DJI Phantom suddenly acted as if it had hit an invisible wall. I tried several times to make sure it wasn’t just the wind, but at exactly 30 meters up, it wouldn’t budge.

Though the drone industry has had a rough start — as with many new technologies — its positive role in other industries has become evident. Most notably, drones have the potential to reshape the film and agricultural industries.

By providing a cheaper alternative to capturing aerial shots, drones have opened the way for independent filmmakers. The gimbal stabilizers that DJI has pioneered alongside its drones have also played a part in making high-quality tools more accessible.

One of the latest gadgets to come out, the DJI goggles, make the experience of watching drone footage even more exciting. Many have described it as something that could have come out of the movie Avatar as you find yourself flying over the ocean while sitting on a park bench.

For the agricultural industry, drones have already been used to analyze the growth of large patches of crops. Using sophisticated algorithms, the drones can capture large amounts of data that farmers can use to better tend to their crops.

It might seem obvious that more drone companies would be putting their obvious to more practical purposes than for Christmas toys, but the reality is, only one or two actually are. This past winter, I had the opportunity to attend the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. One of the hottest tech conferences each year, CES features the newest, most cutting-edge products in the tech industry.

I saw huge potential with the drone startups there, but it soon became obvious that there were two dominant players: DJI and Yuneec. With the biggest booths on the floor, the power dynamic wasn’t hard to miss.

The startups that flanked their bigger brothers featured drones that could fire ping pong balls. The problem here is that many of these young companies don’t realize that they have products that are more than just toys. If they aren’t marketed as something more, drones can quickly become a fad and die away.

For now, it seems as though many of the startups are hooked on the idea of disrupting the drone industry itself.

The focus is on building new hardware and creating new designs, not thinking about where these drones will fit in or what other industries they could potentially infiltrate. However, they’ll soon need to develop a bigger vision, and places like Hollywood might be worth keeping an eye on.

For society, the rise of drones can mean many things. For one, they have truly changed the way we think about privacy and property. Who would have ever thought we would have to consider who owned the air?

Their rise also adds a whole new dimension to the issue of data privacy in the age of technology. With eyes everywhere, even places where immobile security cameras can’t go, drones have already started to change the way we think about our right to privacy. If companies start to find ways to profit off of the visual data that drones capture, we may be in for an even bigger problem. In the meantime, we’ll need to focus on creating the right regulation, so that we can be prepared for what will happen tomorrow.