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National Park Drone Ban And The Preemptive Prohibition of New Technologies

On an otherwise slow news day one of the more widely reported stories has been the National Park Service’s sweeping ban on the use of privately owned drones in the parks under their jurisdiction. It also applies to model airplanes but it’s the au courant buzzword ‘drones’ that is the focus of the headlines and media coverage. Here’s the gist of what the National Park Service drone ban means as explained by Fast Company:

On Friday, NPS director Jonathan B. Jarvis signed a policy memorandum barring the launching, operating, and landing of unmanned aircrafts, citing “serious concerns about the negative impact that flying unmanned aircraft is having in parks,” he said.

The memorandum will be in effect until the service introduces other regulation. It is unknown how long this will take, and the process could require public notice and the opportunity for park goers to weigh in on the proposal. Any permits previously issued for unmanned aircrafts will be suspended until further review.

Wow…so if there are ‘serious concerns’ drones must be a big problem in National Parks. There’s no doubt a good justification for the National Park drone ban. Not so much–the Fast Company article continues:

In September, rangers at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Amphitheater confiscated a drone that flew above visitors for safety reasons. The park service also cited two instances of drone nuisances in April: At Grand Canyon National Park, a drone loudly interrupted a group gathering to watch the sunset, eventually crashing into the canyon. At Zion National Park, volunteers said a craft disturbed a herd of bighorn sheep, separating the young from the adults.

Privacy concerns over the use of drones in public spaces has hit a nerve with some Americans. Earlier this month, a woman was charged with assault after attacking a teenager operating a drone at a beach.

So by my count that’s three drone incidents since September (with all due respect to bighorn sheep, I’m not counting that incident). The National Park Service’s Visitor Use Statistics Office website proudly proclaims that NPS managed sites receive ‘approximately 280 million visitors a year’. The National Park Service oversees 84.4 million acres of land. I’m sure you can do the math. Recent National Park Service crime statistics are hard to come by (and tracking crime in National Parks is notoriously inaccurate) but 3 incidents in over six months with hundreds of millions of visitors doesn’t exactly suggest a crisis worthy of ‘serious concern’. To put it in perspective–in 2009 there were more incidents of assault on Federal employees in National Parks with skateboards and prosthetic limbs than there have been total drone incidents in the past six months. I don’t recall the same sort of ‘serious concern’ about either skateboards or prosthetics.

THE INVASION OF THE DRONES:

To read the hysterical media coverage about private ownership of drones you’d think they’re on the verge of taking over the skies above our country. This is typical technological fear mongering by the media but it appears to have gone a long way of shaping the opinion of the average American–63% think that private ownership of drones should be banned. Some states have done just that with more to come.

There’s only one problem–there is a negligible number of private drones in use today and even after what is billed as a forthcoming ‘explosion’ in their use there *still* won’t be that many flying around. There’s not a lot of concrete data on the number of private drones in use but check out these numbers from an industry publication called ‘Material Handling and Logistics’:

Private drone ownership is predicted to expand to 10,000 unmanned aircraft vehicles within the next five years and to 30,000 by 2020. In addition, hobbyists are creating and flying small, lightweight UAVs of their own, sometimes likened to “flying smartphones.” The hobbyist drone community currently consists of approximately 33,000 active members who create and control personal hobby drones. Private companies are beginning to manufacture drones for civilian use by both corporations and individuals.

Based on these numbers there are less than 10,000 privately owned drones in use (and most likely a significantly lower number) plus 33,000 hobbyists who have built an indeterminate number of ‘personal hobby drones’. Giving the ‘drone prohibitionists’ every benefit of the doubt–we’ll use the 30,000 privately owned drones figure (though that is the 2020 projection) and assume that every one of the 33,000 hobbyists has their own drone–the hysteria over drones is downright silly. Back to the National Park Service drone ban–for the sake of argument we’ll assume that every private drone owner and every drone hobbyist visited a National Park in the past year. This all adds up to just over .02% of all National Park visitors owning a drone (0.02357142857142857% to be exact) and this is based on the inflated ‘benefit of the doubt’ numbers. In reality, it’s probably closer to .01% of all visitors.

PREEMPTIVE PROHIBITION IS A BAD IDEA:

Since it’s mathematically impossible for privately owned drones to be an actual problem at this point in National Parks or anywhere else why the rush to ban them? Why not wait until a) it becomes a problem and b) the market develops enough to determine how they’ll be used. Because that’s what government *does* over and over again. They did it with Google Glass (despite the fact that until recently it was only available to ‘Explorers’) and they’re trying to do it with Uber, Bitcoin and countless other developing technologies. Our government likes to talk glowingly about the promise of technology in the abstract while simultaneously attempting to rein it in as a means of preserving the status quo. The mainstream media and the ‘average Americans’ who get their tech information from them are their unwitting pawns. Simply put, technological advancement and regulation–and especially ‘preemptive regulation’ don’t mix as Larry Downes articulated recently in Forbes Magazine:

There is also the problem political scientists call “regulatory capture.” Since regulators and the industries they oversee deal almost exclusively only with each other, they tend over time to develop a customer-provider relationship, in which both have a vested interest in continuing the regulatory system long after the public interest benefits have been vastly outweighed by the anti-innovation costs.

The regulator becomes the industry’s cheerleader, and regulations shift subtly from protecting the public interest to protecting the status quo.

So it’s only rational that when disruptive technologies enable new innovations, regulated industry incumbents run the other way, working to ban rather than embrace them. Unfortunately, the only tool in their arsenal is to wake up the regulators and demand they use the full force of the state to put a stop to such things.

There’s a more insidious reason also at play in my opinion–disruption threatens our government overlords right where it hurts by undermining their control over the citizens. They’re not only ‘carrying water’ for their financial benefactors but doing what they can to maintain the status quo in order to perpetuate their power. The rush to ban drones is a symptom of a much bigger problem.

About James Murphy

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