Recently I had the opportunity to speak to a college class regarding public perception and policy regarding drones and other autonomous vehicles. In preparing for my presentation, I realized several things that I already knew, but had not really thought about it.

In considering how best to provide an overview of how quickly technology is adapted once people understand its capabilities, it dawned on me that today’s college students have only known a world with smart phones. The first iPhone was introduced in June of 2007, when most college students were in elementary school.

In contrasting the public’s quick adoption of smartphones with the public’s far slower openness to drone technology, I asked the students to ponder how successful the iPhone would have been if only a handful of apps were available for the first few years after the iPhone’s introduction. In essence, even if smart phones were capable of supporting millions of varied applications, if the apps themselves were unavailable, the success of smart phones would have been in peril.

Okay, you say, I get that this is public perception, but how does it relate to policy? Until the public recognizes a tangible benefit from technology, it tends to be apprehensive of the technology.

In the early 20th century, cities passed laws that matched the speed limit to the pace of horse-drawn wagons, or no more than 5 miles per hour. In England, some small towns required the driver to notify the constable, who would then walk in front of the car waving two red warning flags.

In 1900, there were 8,000 automobiles in the United States. By 1920, that number had grown to 8,000,000. A large part of the increase is due to lowered production costs as a result of Henry Ford’s assembly line, but another factor was the public’s increasing understanding of the fact that automobiles could have a positive impact on their lives.


5756268 - illustration of a ford model t.

In other words, both decreased cost as well as the recognition of a tangible benefit resulted in the public embracing new technology. The public’s newfound perception of automobiles as positive, rather than negative, then helped to shape policy, such as increasing the 5 mph speed limit, enacting gasoline taxes to fund roads, creating parking lots, etc.

As noted above, once the public embraces new technology, it is adopted quickly and the technology itself evolves rapidly.  Orville Wright piloted the first powered airplane in 1903. That first flight lasted 12 seconds and the aircraft flew a mere 120 feet.  Orville lived to see Chuck Yeager break the sound barrier in 1947. Likewise, Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic in 1927 and he was present at Cape Canaveral when Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins climbed into the rocket that would take them to the moon.

If the public had not embraced automobiles and airplanes, those industries would not have enjoyed the success they have, at least not in the timeframe in which it occurred. Without roads and other infrastructure, the public’s eagerness to embrace automobiles would have been stymied. Without airports and regulations to ensure safe flights, as well as the ability to fly long distances, airlines would have struggled to succeed.

Until the FAA permits beyond visual line of sight (“BVLOS”) operation of drones, the public has no idea of the capabilities of drones and the myriad of ways in which their lives will be positively impacted by drones. However, when BVLOS is permitted, I predict the public will quickly comprehend the significant positive impact of drones and embrace the technology.