Planes, Trains, Automobiles and ... Drones

There is no saying no to the future

The hullaballoo about an errant drone that nearly collided with a US Airways jet near Tallahassee Regional Airport has the fear-mongers clucking.
Regulators and regular Joes (and Joans) are trying to come to grips with the consequences of a new technology and the clamor is predictable. There are cries to ground all drones, limit flight paths, and insist on licensed operators. The outcry has been amplified by the US Airways pilot’s ominous description of the drone as “a camouflaged F-4 fixed-wing aircraft that was quite small.”
Something bad will happen with a drone. The prognosticators will say it's only a matter of time before one flies into a crane operator’s cab or drops onto a stroller housing triplets, chewing on baby bagels. These incidents will provide a field-day for headline writers and may even cause CNN to break away from its hunt for the missing Malaysian Airlines plane. But something bad always happens with a new technology. Take planes, trains and automobiles – if not necessarily in that order.
When the first train inaugurated the 35-mile long Liverpool to Manchester railway line in 1830, it did so over the objections and to the despair of the local canal operators. It caused more than despair for a Member of Britain’s Parliament, who made the mistake of stepping into the path of the oncoming train which was rushing along at 24 mph – about 12% of the maximum speed of today’s Beijing to Shanghai express – and became the first person to spread-eagle himself across a row of sleepers. Imagine if the scaremongers had got their way at that point – before drivers had got into the habit of blowing whistles or, more importantly, before all sorts of railway safety mechanisms had been developed such as cambered tracks; signal boxes; articulated carriages; safety brakes; kill switches, electronic brakes and level crossings.
As automobiles appeared, the caterwauling was similar. People were afraid the engines would scare horses and, in Britain, early cars were forbidden to travel faster than 4 mph and were escorted by men carrying flags. The first fatality occurred in 1896 when a laborer’s wife was killed by a vehicle, driven by a man (who, at that point, was not required to hold a license), traveling, according to an eyewitness, “as fast as a horse could gallop." This, lest it not be obvious, was long before the time of automatic transmissions, safety belts, airbags, collapsible fenders and steering columns, pedestrian crossings, traffic lights, double-yellow lines, crash barriers, drivers licenses’, traffic courts, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the 250 million cars that are registered in the United States.
Nobody who was present when Orville Wright survived the first fatal air crash in 1908 after his plane “came down like a bird shot dead in full flight” could have dreamed that just over one hundred years later Sully Sullenberger would land a twin-jet Airbus A320 down the middle runway of the Hudson River without the loss of any of its 155 passengers and crew. But then again, the 2,000 spectators present when part of the propeller of Wright’s plane disintegrated could also not have imagined a time when almost 100,000 flights a day would take off or when composite fuselage materials, de-icing equipment, pressurized cabins, automatic pilot systems, head-up displays, the FAA, Jeppersen flights plans and the other accouterments of modern aviation would become standard.

Decades from now, drones will be just as much a part of life as trains, airplanes, automobiles, trucks, helicopters, farm tractors, combine harvesters, high-speed ferries and fork-lifts are today.
The adventurous aren’t holding back or waiting for the FAA. Mechanics are using drones to inspect the wings of parked airplanes. Farmers deploy them to inspect their fields and herd cattle. Realtors and videographers use them to shoot video to market properties and film weddings.
And Jeff Bezos’s idea for turning drones into delivery vehicles safely cruising in the uncongested air above cities is highly plausible. Delivery drivers might find this an unlikely prospect, but then again, workers who painted Model Ts would not have dreamed they would be replaced by robots.


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