Promise and peril of drone economy

Emerging technologies, like unmanned aerial vehicles, can charm, baffle and vex all at once, in a classic tug-of-war between advocates of innovation and proponents of caution. Shorn of the hype, the performance of drones has yet to live up to expectations. External signals can interfere with their navigation systems, many are not able to sense obstacles or other flying objects, they lack autonomous intelligence to discern their relative position, and they are vulnerable to bad weather conditions. So, those who criticise regulators for not being able to figure out what to do are missing the target. Drone champions themselves haven't figured out sound ways to address technological risks. Hence, giving them unbridled leeway to experiment in live settings would be sheer folly.

In the circumstances, it would be prudent for regulators to take a common-sense approach by heeding all security, safety and privacy concerns while offering novel technologies some room to breathe and grow safely. The challenge is to separate facts (such as the proven ability of man and machine) from fantasy (like equating the future importance of drones with that of personal computers).

Internet retail giant Amazon has been dreaming of drone delivery and has been granted some scope to run more tests. One can readily conceive of many other uses - in law enforcement, firefighting, search and rescue, monitoring installations, and inspecting and repairing tall structures like bridges and towers. In battle zones, sophisticated drones have been used successfully to hunt down terrorists. But that's a far cry from having mass-produced flying robots routinely deliver pizzas, without crashing into walls, harming people or hurting operators, as reported.

Under the law here, a drone weighing no more than 7kg can be flown without a permit up to a height of 200 feet, if outside 5km of an aerodrome. Photographers and film-makers, predictably, have been quick to use such aircraft, with popular models costing between $1,500 and $6,000. Sans serial numbers, sans registration requirement and sans pilot certification, the thought of such machines buzzing around freely is unnerving - especially after one crashed on the White House lawn and mysterious drones were spotted over a dozen nuclear plants across France.

A review of the regulatory framework governing drones is under way here, alongside efforts by the International Civil Aviation Organisation to develop international standards to regulate such aircraft. Such rules cannot come soon enough to both protect society from potential ills while offering sufficient runway for a new technology to take off.

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