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.

With the rapid expansion of the drone industry, the FAA has granted more than 4,200 special permits for companies wanting to utilize drones to advance innovations in their businesses.[1] According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, companies representing more than 600,000 jobs and $500 billion in economic impact were among the first 1,000 exemptions granted.[2] One such innovation is already being seen and tested in the area of real property inspections. The use of drones for real property inspections is transforming industries like insurance and telecommunications.

Ruined house after powerful earthquake disaster
Copyright: Baloncici / 123RF Stock Photo

State Farm was the first insurer in the United States to receive Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) permission to test Unmanned Aircraft Systems (“UAS”) for commercial use.[3] Insurance giants American International Group Inc. (“AIG”), United Services Automobile Association (“USAA”), and Allstate followed suit, each receiving approval from the FAA to use UAS to conduct property inspections in the United States.[4] Using UAS for property inspections allows State Farm, AIG, USAA, and Allstate to inspect areas that are difficult or dangerous for humans to inspect, such as wind farms, condemned buildings, damaged roofs and collapsed buildings.[5] The insurance companies hope that drone technology will allow them to utilize UAS as remote insurance inspectors, allowing them to inspect properties more safely, quickly and easily. In addition, Allstate believes that “[d]rones used in the claims process could provide faster payments to customers, especially in an area where widespread damage occurs quickly.”[6]

However, the FAA limits how State Farm, AIG, USAA, and Allstate can use UAS in their operations.[7] For example, the insurance companies can fly drones over private or controlled-access property only with the permission from the owner or other authorized party.[8] Therefore, the insurance companies need to have permission from all landowners they fly over.[9] In addition, flights must take place away from airports and most urban areas and must be during the daytime.[10] Such restrictions will certainly make it more difficult for insurance companies to use drone technology to its full potential. The restrictions, however, strike a balance between the commercial use of drones and the FAA’s concerns regarding privacy and safety.

Similarly, telecommunications firms hope to be able to utilize UAS to inspect more dangerous or difficult inspections.[11] To achieve this,

Panorama with two telecommunications towers against sea and sky
Copyright: altomedia / 123RF Stock Photo

Aerialtronics joined efforts with Neurala and NVIDIA to demonstrate a UAS system that can visually inspect a cell tower and recognize the equipment mounted on the mast.[12] In the near future, such a system will be able to automate the documentation of assets and assess the mechanical functionality and condition of the cell tower to identify rust and other defects.[13] In a recent blog posting, John Donovan, the chief strategy officer for AT&T, wrote about his excitement for the future of AT&T and drone technology.[14] AT&T recently launched the trial phase of its national drone program, which is currently using drones to perform aerial inspections of its cell towers.[15]

Looking forward, AT&T hopes to use Flying Cell on Wings to provide LTE coverage at large events and rapid disaster response.[16] In this way, AT&T will be able to provide coverage when cell towers are usually clogged by increased traffic.[17] The future use of drones is also expected to expand beyond the insurance and telecommunications industries. Drones will likely be used by governments and companies to safely inspect bridges, buildings, wind turbines and other infrastructure.[18]

Our UAS team at Fox will continue to monitor the use of drones in property inspections and the restrictions placed on such usage by the FAA.

[1] Bart Jansen, USA Today, Insurers adopt drones for airborne inspections, Mar. 21, 2016, available at http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2016/03/31/insurers-adopt-drones-airborne-inspections/82434322/ [hereinafter “Jansen”].

[2] Id.

[3] State Farm, State Farm Cleared for Takeoff: FAA okays insurer to test damage-assessing drones, Mar. 16, 2015, available at https://www.statefarm.com/about-us/newsroom/2015/03/16/cleared-for-takeoff.

[4] Leslie Scism & Jack Nicas, The Wall Street Journal, Insurers Get Approval to Use Drones: AIG, State Farm and USAA will be able to use the unmanned aircraft to do inspections, Apr. 8, 2015, available at http://www.wsj.com/articles/aig-receives-faa-approval-for-drone-use-1428499777 [hereinafter “Scism & Nicas”]; Cameron Graham, Technology Advice, 3 Companies Using Drones to Improve Inspections, June 23, 2015, available at http://technologyadvice.com/blog/information-technology/companies-using-drones-for-inspections/ [hereinafter “Graham”].

[5] Id.

[6] Graham.

[7] Scism & Nicas.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Jansen.

[12] Drone Business.center, Intelligent Drone Will Automate Inspections, Oct. 4, 2016, available at https://dronebusiness.center/intelligent-drone-automate-inspection-12525/?utm_source=Drone+Business+Center&utm_campaign=78d7db7320-dbc_10081610_7_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_5c60558777-78d7db7320-124566457 [hereinafter “Drone Business.center”].

[13] Id.

[14] John Donovan, Drones Taking Our Network to New Heights, July 13, 2016, available at http://about.att.com/innovationblog/drones_new_heights.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Drone Business.center.