The Secret Service reported yesterday morning that one of their agents “saw and heard” a quadcopter crash into the White House lawn in the pre-dawn hours. After the predictable conflicting reports during the morning media frenzy, the details surrounding the crash have come into focus. Turns out it was a government employee at the sticks. He called the Secret Service at 9:30 am and took responsibility, saying he was flying for recreational purposes. Apparently he was drunk. A full investigation is still ongoing.
This obviously raises many questions about safety and privacy. For instance, could these small drones pose an asymmetrically large threat? Could this happen on my lawn?
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Drones and Privacy
First, note when this guy was flying: approximately 3:08 in the morning, according to the Secret Service. Why he was out flying next to the White House in that morning’s sleet and rain at that ungodly hour is unclear and foolish on many levels. But it’s also instructive.
If you want to use drones to spy, you’d be a really bad spy. They’re really conspicuous: a strange and highly recognizable shape in an empty sky, with colorful flashing LEDs and a thousand wasps for a soundtrack. The only way this drone could have gone undetected — and we should point out here that it didn’t — would be to fly when absolutely nobody’s around. Say for instance in the sleet at 3 am in the dead of winter. Conversely, while playing pick-up soccer in the sun at Austin’s Zilker Park last Saturday, I saw four drones flying — and so did literally everyone out there who was over the age of six and not blind.
The conspicuity of drones applies to privacy in another way as well. Most of us already have incredibly powerful spy devices in our pockets right now, but we’ve grown so accustomed to their presence that we no longer think twice about them, even though they’re everywhere. If ever there were a reason to kick off the personal privacy debate, smartphones should have done it, right?
But phones are so small as to be almost completely unobtrusive. Drones, on the other hand, look weird and fly around. So even though they’re not nearly as effective of a spy tool as your iPhone, by dint of their visibility they make the personal privacy issue difficult to ignore. So when the media worries about drones invading our privacy, such as has been expressed following the White House drone crash, we’re really finally looking hard at an issue that’s been simmering in the modern milieu for years but has not yet surfaced in such a memorable shape. In other words, drones aren’t nearly as much of a privacy threat as they might seem, but they might ironically be exactly the catalyst we need for this long-overdue public conversation.
Drones and Safety
The other big question in the wake of the White House drone crash is safety. Again, the conspicuous visual ID of any drone large enough to pose any sort of threat would most likely render moot that threat. And many of these concerns can be addressed with software, such as what’s known as “geofencing,” drawing an invisible boundary around an area that the drone can’t get past. In fact, 3DR already addresses this: out of the box, your 3DR drone is programmed to stay under the FAA’s flight ceiling of 400 feet. We’re also working with NASA on developing geofences for moving objects like planes and helicopters. Drone companies could theoretically take this same principle and apply it to the White House lawn.
But this safety concern is also an old worry in a new wrapper, and just like with the privacy concerns, it obscures a larger story.
Drones are “asymmetrical,” meaning they can give one person an outsized reach. Now anyone can at any time experience the thrill of flight and see the world from above — unheard of until today. This kind of asymmetry is almost magical; it’s why we got into this business in the first place, and it’s why we continue to improve and love and promote the constructive use of this technology. Our drones help people see and share their world from above, and when we put our drones in their hands we’ve seen them do some amazing things. They blow us away every day.
This asymmetry is the product of years of technological innovation and democratization. Again, we can point to smartphone technology, which made the complex sensors and the staggering amount of computational power that drones need widely available, not to mention affordable and small enough to carry into the air.
In other words we’re entering a new, post-gravity era. More and more people will have access to this technology, and very soon we’re going to see an explosion of value in the form of amazing advancements in technology, not to mention in the arts, education, industry and commerce. That’s the power of asymmetry — of giving everyone access.
But, as is the case with smartphones, the most significant and effective agent of asymmetry is on the whole practically invisible: the internet. As a society we’re only just now starting to come to terms with the downsides of the internet’s asymmetry; never before could a small group of dudes in a basement somewhere pose an existential threat. And just like with privacy concerns, those strange-looking drones also happen to give a face to the faceless here: a huge shift in access to world-changing technology. So when it comes to safety, which picture raises your heartbeat: a hacked internet server, or a crashed drone? Answer that and you start to understand why these sensationalist drone stories punch above their weight.
Welcome to life after gravity.
Life After Gravity
So people have access now, which they can use for ill, like hacking or running drugs or flying recklessly in the D.C. sleet. But the overwhelming majority of people will use it for good, like saving firefighters and orangutans, monitoring crops and construction, or just documenting sports and family vacations in a cool and exciting new way. Our bet, obviously, lies with the latter. That’s what our company is the face of: A new and better life — after gravity.
And in the next year you’re going to see some amazing leaps forward from our company, in terms of awesome technology and in terms of ease of use and user experience, but most importantly in terms of the amount of good that people can do and the kind of fun that people can have, once given access to a new level on which to enjoy and build upon their lives. We’ll look back on these early headline-grabbing items, like “Drone Crashes on White House Lawn,” the title of this very article, and see them for what they are: blips of foolishness on a massive and as-yet unexplored new plane. We’d like all of you good people to join us in the journey.