Drones don’t tail people. People tail people.

Octocopter - Cinestar 8

As you may have read on Hack Things previously, drones could offer society and commerce a host of benefits by performing tasks too difficult or costly to be handled by existing airborne technology. Startups are already working hard to build that future today – everything from 24/7 surveillance for construction sites and car dealerships, to conquering poor roads and delivering medicine in the developing world, and even providing comprehensive air traffic control for all those drones in flight. As ‘robots that fly,’ drones will simply be doing our bidding (ignoring any Skynet-becomes-self-aware doomsday scenarios; you’re on your own in that case).

The bidding they do for us, however, remains the subject of a great deal of debate and concern. Adam Penenberg wrote a recent must-read piece that takes a purposefully dystopian view of drone technology to one set of extreme (yet plausible) outcomes. Putting it way out there:

“What if urban gangs were to equip drones with weaponry to target rival gang members, or a thief uses one to break into a store or someone’s home? What if terrorists, like in the plot the FBI foiled in 2011, were to release biological agents like anthrax or other deadly substances from drones flying over towns or cities? Then you’d need drones to combat other drones, engaged in a constant state of robotic warfare.”

Let’s back up for a second.

Technology itself is value neutral; moral and ethical outcomes are found in its human applications and creator’s intent. There have always been peeping toms – drones just enable a noisier, higher-flying avatar for said bad behavior. Same goes for most any other wrongdoing. Technology may shorten the distance between intent and action, but individual and societal values usually evolve to shape the technology’s use. Where personal drones are concerned, we are at such an early stage that it’s impossible to accurately predict how all of this is going to turn out.

How might a industry in its infancy get level with the public perception issues around unmanned aerial systems’ privacy, security, and safety? Perhaps drone-trepreneurs can turn to the lessons the plain old commercial web has already taught us: reputation systems and transparency can deeply influence behavior.

Imagine you have a business that uses drones to shoot exterior video for high-end real estate listings. Full-on, sweeping steadicam-type luxury footage. Let’s further assume we’re a few more years into a drone-addled future, and there have been increasing incidents where hobbyist drones have been up to no good, and businesses/events operating video drones for security have received complaints or even nervy police visits. How are you, commerce-minded videographer with no ill intent, going to operate without suspicion or interference when your octocopter whirrs into the Bel Air summer sky and starts shooting in glorious 1080p HD?

What if there was a free app – let’s call it “DroneAware” – that could let anyone know when commercial drone activity is taking place nearby (or anywhere they care to look). This app can:

  • plot drone operating areas and flight lanes on a map in real-time

  • provide public video feeds from the drones themselves (to show their operators have nothing to hide)

  • allow its user to comment on the activity, report a complaint, and read others’ reviews of the operator and its practices

Drone operators (like our videographer) could claim a profile on this system and register their drones to report their positions and offer video feeds over cellular data networks. Much like Yelp or TripAdvisor, they also use it as a platform to both defend themselves from false claims and to accept responsibility for their mistakes.  An industry initiative like DroneAware should increase transparency and help all parties feel better off about these systems’ increasing role in our lives. (Hopefully it would minimize the need for more reactive measures, like DroneShield.)

But enough about the block-and-tackle of business operations. Who’s up for some pizza?

matt shobe head shotAbout the Author: Matt Shobe is a user experience designer, entrepreneur, and private pilot. He is a mentor with TechStars Seattle and is a former Googler and co-founder of FeedBurner.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/villehoo/6733120095/

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  1. kirill says:

    Drone-aware would be a good solution, but then of course we’ll get into the territory when hundreds of drones fly within 1 square mile radius of your phone, and you just cannot keep track of friendly and non-friendly drones. That will of course require some sort of drone-on-drone police, registrations, permits, flight paths …. 20 years from now it’ll be easier to get a gun than to fly a drone :)