On “Mass Jackassery”: Preparing drones for the consumer revolution

This summer 3DR’s CEO Chris Anderson appeared on CBS This Morning, talking drones across the desk from Charlie Rose. Eventually and ineluctably Chris was pressed on issues of safety and privacy. His response? A phrase that’s since gone viral — well, in as much as a catchphrase about drone safety can be said to have gone viral.

“Mass jackassery.”

Chris was jokingly referring to the consequences of a strange paradox that’s arisen in the age of consumer drones: As drones get more sophisticated and easier to use, users themselves get less sophisticated. There are two reasons for this: The ease of use means the drone user group will expand beyond hobbyists who have been flying for years to people who haven’t flown at all; and the ease of use also means that these same inexperienced users can now fly drones almost without thinking. By cutting out the process of learning to fly, we’ve also cut out the process of learning about flying: how to fly responsibly; what the rules are; where not to fly; what to do if something goes wrong.

This combination is what gives rise to “mass jackassery”: reckless or uninformed flying that could have dangerous results. And even though drones are easy targets for irresponsibly sensationalist and intentionally provocative journalism, this kind of flying is a real concern for the drone community — including manufacturers like ourselves.

The FAA has responded just this week by fast-tracking a set of rules that would require drones to be registered. Right now we only have half the story — we don’t know which weight classes the FAA will require registration — but as an industry leader, there are certainly steps we can take to keeping the skies safe outside of regulatory requirements.

So: what do we do about it?

Chris made his thoughts known. Last month he published a short essay in Hackaday addressing this very topic. It gets a little technical, so I’ll break it down for you here.

How to regulate drones is an important question, because we’re establishing precedents for a new and soon widespread technology. These first steps are big ones: We have to choose carefully and mindfully the direction we’re going to take.

Mainly we in the industry want to develop viable solutions before governments step in to do that for us. The reason? Regulatory overreaction and overreach could unintentionally ground drones in many legitimate use cases, or make it cumbersome to get flying in the first place, stunting research and economic potential. But Chris also points out that there’s actually a government precedent for solving a regulatory problem like the one we face today.

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When the FCC opened up the bandwidth spectrum that we now use for WiFi (2.4 GHz), it released a set of useful guidelines that we can apply to creating a similar open spectrum of sky for drones:

  1. The space isn’t already being used
  2. Potential for harm is low. (Low transmission power in the case of Wifi. Small drones in our case.)
  3. The technology knows when it might cause interference, and can keep out of the way

If the FAA takes similar steps so that drones can meet these requirements, they’ll be effectively integrated into their own “sandbox” in the national airspace. Which brings us to Chris’s general thesis: Technology can solve the problems it creates.

Solo is already smart. But we can make it even smarter — make it truly self-aware — so that it knows when and where it can fly. Here’s how we do it.

Drones, with communications based on cell and wifi transmission, are already plugged into our national information network — even plugged in to “the cloud.” Drones can leverage this existing network to communicate and inform. They can even regulate themselves: If your drone sends a signal of its position to the cloud and gets a message back that it’s too close to an airport, for instance, the user might get a “red light,” or a “you can’t fly here” message and explanation. Drones can also use this data network to send information to each other about their position in real time, so they could in effect communicate through a virtual air traffic control system, keeping clear of each other’s signals.

Different manufacturers may of course choose to take different approaches to where and how their products let you fly, but integrating drones into some sort of uniform national air traffic control scheme like the above is a necessity. As Chris jokes in his essay, yes, this means making Skynet self-aware. But better self-aware than self-destructive.

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