Wednesday Quickies: Drone Edition

For some reason, drones keep popping up in my news feed this week. Apart from the DHL delivery drone I posted about on Monday, I’ve found a few interesting (and occasionally perplexing) stories about camera-wielding drones. A few examples:

Perhaps the most important drones in the world right now are the ones that are currently filming the protests in Hong Kong. The protests are absolutely massive-bigger than any I have ever seen on the news, at any rate. But anybody who has ever been to a protest march with a camera phone knows that it can be really tricky to snap a photo that accurately portrays the size of the crowd. Most of the best ones tend to come from bystanders on top of tall buildings. In Hong Kong, however, small camera drones are apparently allowing journalists to deal with that limitation, and capture stunning photos like this one:

hong kong protests

This photo was taken by a drone. From Mashable.

This is kind of exciting from an activist perspective. It makes it that much easier to document both protests, and the police brutality that often follows them. The police can arrest journalists, but even if they ban drones in protest areas, they’ll probably have a hard time bringing them down, especially as they get smaller and fly higher. That’s probably the rationale behind the flone, which has been developed specifically as an activist technology.

It turns out, however, that camera drones are already illegal in the United States! So illegal, in fact, that even big-name Hollywood producers have traditionally had to go abroad to use them. The FAA recently granted an exemption to the rule against commercial drones for film makers, but it still comes with some pretty restrictive stipulations. They can’t fly very far, and it looks like there will be a lot of red tape in the permitting process. What this shows is that the FAA regulations that opponents of delivery drones pointed to so triumphantly are actually extremely restrictive by international standards. Of course, it’s an open question whether that means that the FAA will be more open to change if commercial drones become popular elsewhere, or does it mean that they’ll be even more reluctant to do so.

And lastly, there’s this thing. I’ll admit that I find it a bit neat, and the people who made it certainly deserve some credit for originality. But what exactly is it for? Maybe it will have a small niche market in extreme sports types, but beyond that I can’t imagine who might need it. Anybody who wears that thing around while not climbing a mountain will probably suffer from the Glasshole Effect pretty quickly. But it does demonstrate that drone technology is getting cheaper, smaller, and more manageable at a pretty fast rate. Maybe they’ll find all kinds of little niche applications like this. Personally, I’d like one that I can remotely fly around my house whenever I go out and get paranoid that I’ve left the stove on.

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Stop being cynical about technology!

Google Project Wing Drone Delivery 1

Google’s Project Wing. From weburbanist.com.

I’m going to start this post with a simple premise: Any sustainable future we ever manage to achieve will look, to our eyes, like science fiction.

That probably sounds like a pretty straightforward thesis. It’s nearly a cliche now to point out that our present-day society, with smartphones and electric cars and an international space station would look a lot like science fiction to anybody living in the 1880s, or even the 1980s. And anybody who has done any serious thinking about sustainability knows that we will have to make some further massive changes in order to attain it.  It follows that a future society; especially one in which we have solved such a fundamental problem as sustainability, will look bizarre and futuristic to us. But whether or not they accept this in princple, people often seem to have trouble applying it to the case of specific proposed technologies. Case in point: the vision of Drone Delivery.

I wrote about PrimeAir, one possible manifestation of drone delivery, a while ago, when the project was first announced a bit less than a year ago. Back then, I argued that the plan was somewhat plausible, with some definite sustainability benefits. I still hold that view. But today I want to use PrimeAir and other proposed systems like it to make a more general point. The kneejerk mockery and more sober dismissals to which PrimeAir was subjected were often based largely on the fact that PrimeAir looked like something out of a science fiction novel. We don’t live in a science fiction novel, so how could this idea possibly have any viability? Prominent (and slightly obnoxious) youtube atheist Thunderf00t’s dismissal of Solar Roadways falls into a similar trap: He points out the astronomical cost of making enough LEDs to supply all the solar road panels, while utterly failing to conisder that the promise of such a technology might make people find ways to dramatically reduce the price of LEDs.

Since I last wrote about it, the idea of drone delivery looks just a little bit more plausible. Google has recently been testing fixed-wing delivery drones by making deliveries to cattle farmers in the Australian outback, and parcel delivery giant DHL is now using a quad-copter to make actual deliveries to the North Sea island of Juist. So actual drone deliveries are now being made. True, these experimental projects are mainly being conducted in rural areas, and only in a purely experimental context. But the basic premise has been proven. And if it’s only viable in rural areas, so what? That just means it’s great news for people who live in rural areas. Drone delivery isn’t guaranteed to become a reality yet. It could, for example, suffer from the Hindenburg Effect if one of these drones has a bad crash in the next few years. But it is certainly within the realm of future possibility.

The history of technology shows that people are not very good at accurately assessing what is within the realm of future possibility. Newspapers at the turn of the twentieth century, for example, routinely predicted that the horse would continue to have an important economic role in the future. Sure, they conceded, cars might be useful for a few things. But they’re next to useless on country roads, they can’t pull a plow, and you can’t ride them into battle. So the horse is here to stay. These writers failed to predict that country roads would get paved, that tractors would be invented, and that cavalry would be made obsolete by machine guns. And therein lies the problem: The future is a complicated thing. Millions of things will change between now and even ten years from now, making new things possible and old things obsolete. To rule out something like drone delivery, you’d have to account for all of them. And that’s something you simply can’t do.

I maintain that there is a way to get around this limitation, although it is a very inexact science. My research suggests that you can assess the plausibility of a new technology by asking a few simple questions about it. I’ll list them below.

1. Is it physically possible? Does it work? If it doesn’t, then it’s obviously a non-starter. For some things such as a space elevator, the answer to this question is uncertain. For others, like cold fusion, it’s a definite no. But for drone delivery, we have to say yes. Drones have proven to be within the realm of physical possibility.

2. Can it attain cultural legitimacy? Cultural legitimacy refers to the general perception that a new technology, or a new way of doing things, is acceptable according to cultural standards. That means that it has to be perceived as safe, generally beneficial, respectable,  and not too threatening to the things people value. Nuclear power plants have struggled with cultural legitimacy. The segue failed on the respectability point. Delivery drones could reasonably tick this box, but only if they deal with the concerns about surveillance and the displacement of human workers.

3. Is there a viable niche? Virtually no technology arrives on the market in a sufficiently refined state that it can compete directly with the dominant way of doing things. New technologies are “hopeful monstrosities“, and to move beyond the laboratory, they usually need some specific, narrow application that they’re really good at. The people working on a radical new technology can use this niche as a place to refine their technology, and gradually make it more effective, efficient, and attractive, eventually allowing it to take over larger markets. Solar panels, for example, found a useful niche in space. And drone delivery might have one in delivering to remote places such as the Australian Outback and the Island of Juist

4. Does it have sufficient practical advantages that it could compete? Even once a new technology has matured within a niche, there has to be a good reason for people to make the switch to a new way of doing things. In simple terms, that means that it has to be better than the alternative. Cars were able to supplant horses in part because they are faster. To be viable, drone delivery will have to be either more convenient, or cheaper than human delivery. Or both.

5. What would be necessary to accommodate it? New technologies need new infrastructures, new regulations, new financial arrangements, and new cultures. Not all of these things have to fall in place right away. But in order for something to go from a mere technology to a system, it will eventually have to start changing society around itself. The accommodation of commercial flight, for example, required an airport system, a whole new regulatory apparatus, and for people to be willing to incorporate flight into their daily lives. Drone delivery would need new kinds of warehousing, new aviation laws, and probably new ways of picking up packages as they arrive at your house. The question is, how likely are these changes to occur?

6. Who, or what, stands in its way? And how powerful are they? Some people don’t want the world to change. Every new way of doing things is going to come up against vested interests, and these vested interests need to be assessed before you can declare a new technology plausible. Napster, for example, failed, because the powerful recording industry objected. In the case of drone delivery, we can expect delivery companies, labour unions, and conventional retail stores to kick up a fuss. Can Amazon or Google win a political battle against them?

This post isn’t really about drone delivery. Your answers to the above questions might be different than mine, and that’s fine. You might also suggest a slightly different list of questions. But ultimately, this kind of framework is what we need to be able to assess new technologies effectively. Assessing future technologies based on present-day capabilities and parameters, or simply looking at a futuristic-looking proposal and saying “That looks stupid. Never gonna happen”, is not a very sound way of considering future change. Nor is it a very effective way of encouraging sustainability. If we don’t make at least a few big technological bets, then we will almost certainly destroy the planet. We need to be critical, but not cynical: We need enough enthusiasm that we can endorse promising technological visions, and help them become reality. We need to be willing to risk the embarrassment of being wrong about the promise new innovations. Change always seems impossible, until it happens.

The Feasibility of Amazon Prime Air

Amazon prime air is in the media crosshairs.

About a week ago, Amazon announced plans to begin using drones to deliver packages within thirty minutes of ordering. They have released an ad that depicts a skateboard tool ordered via smartphone being packed into a box clipped onto the bottom of an eight-rotored flying robot, and flown over picturesque countryside to its recipient. All within 30 minutes.

It’s a neat idea, but most serious news outlets are understandably skeptical about the proposal. Reactions have ranged from mockery, to sober dismissal. This Slate article sums up the latter reaction pretty well:

Today’s drones are good at gathering information. Bigger drones are better at this than smaller ones. And only large, expensive drones flown by the U.S. government, are currently any good at delivering physical objects.

If thousands of drones are to fly around delivering packages across cities, they must become orders of magnitude more reliable than they are. Otherwise some will crash every day, and Bezos will have to hire an army of people to drive around, pick up the fallen drones, deliver the packages, and refurbish the drones. To satisfy the FAA, drones makers (and would-be operators) must prove that they are able to avoid airplanes, helicopters, and one another and to handle sudden changes in the weather.

On its surface, the Slate article makes a lot of good points. Current socio-technical regimes around both commercial flight and package delivery are not conducive to flying delivery drones. PrimeAir is incommensurable with current technology, policy and regulations. There are also infrastructural concerns, as shipping warehouses are not configured to launch aircraft, and very few people have miniature helicopter landing pads on their front lawns. Drone delivery in crowded cities where most people live in apartment buildings is a whole other concern. So a lot has to change before PrimeAir is feasible, meaning that we won’t be seeing it for at least a few years to come. 

But the Slate article and others like it make the elementary mistake of failing to consider how technology, regulations, and infrastructure can change. This is a classic mistake the media makes when it encounters new technology: At the turn of the century, cars were seen by many as expensive, unsafe toys that would never have any serious role in transportation. Yet cars had become indispensable in many places by the 1960s. There’s no reason to think that delivery drones could not have the same dramatic gain in feasibility and credibility. So let’s consider the various problems to look at just how insurmountable they are:

Firstly, technology. I’ll take Slate’s word for it when they say that small UAVs have neither the reliability nor the range to be used as Amazon proposes. But do they seriously suggest that drone technology will not improve? Making a reliable flying robot that can easily steer itself around obstacles (including other flying robots), deal with inclement weather, and not break down mid-flight to send a brand new coffee grinder crashing down onto the heads of hapless pedestrians below is a simple technical problem that has a technical solution. And there are quite a lot of people working on multi-rotor drones. If Google can make a reliable self-driving car that has to operate in a highly congested highway environment then surely Amazon can make one that can fly safely in the relatively open skies.

Secondly, policy. Slate is right to point out that the FAA will not allow Amazon’s scheme at present, but this criticism has a lot of problems. Firstly and most importantly, it only considers the US! Many other countries (including China and Canada) allow drones to be used commercially. If Amazon rolls out PrimeAir in these countries and it is successful, then it would be very hard for the FAA to retain its prohibition. And why should they? I can’t imagine that Amazon’s drones would fly at altitudes that would make them a threat to any other form of commercial air traffic. So once the technology is perfected to the point that nobody is at risk of being killed by falling broken drones, there is no reason to think that Amazon can’t use its undoubtedly considerable political muscle to push through some regulatory changes.

The last consideration is infrastructure. The infrastructural problems I mentioned above will probably make drones more expensive than trucks, at least in the short term. But Amazon seems willing to invest in these kinds of risky experiments, and there will be many consumers (myself included) who will be happy to pay a premium delivery charge for the added convenience and novelty of drone delivery. This will allow Amazon to establish a small market niche to hone the PrimeAir system. In the long-run, a worldwide rollout of PrimeAir will allow Amazon to massively downsize their human workforce*, meaning that PrimeAir will be profitable in the long run. So it’s worth their while to experiment.

I know there are a lot of reasons to criticize Amazon, but I’m rooting for PrimeAir because I see major environmental potential in it. Electric drones can eliminate a great deal of the carbon emissions created by delivery vehicles. If we can use drones and the internet to replace that system with small, electric vehicles, then that’s a good thing. If drone delivery allows internet shopping to capture more of the retail market, then that means we also reduce the environmental emissions from many stores, and we make it that much easier to live a car-free lifestyle. Those are all good things.

There’s no guarantee that PrimeAir will succeed, of course. There are a lot of contingencies involved, and it’s entirely possible that the whole thing is just an elaborate publicity stunt. But there’s a broader point here about sustainability: We’re not going to get it by staying in our current technological paradigm. If we’re going to implement lasting change, we need to imagine radical alterations to our current system. Critical thought is an important part of this, but if it lapses into cynicism then we’re not going to get anything done.

*I know that this is problematic, and I’m going to address it in a future post.