Geek Vs Geek: Is There a Case for Outlawing Toy Drones?

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The DJI Phantom drone flying over a mountainIn the last few years, drones have become a household word — first as robotic weapons of war in the Middle East, then for domestic surveillance and even package delivery. But Rick thinks the biggest threat comes from you and me — ordinary folks who fly drones as a hobby or a pastime. Should drones be regulated, licensed, or outright banned? Dave and Rick don’t see eye to eye on the topic.

Once a month, eHow Tech editor Dave Johnson faces off against Rick Broida, who writes about technology for CNET, PC World, and Wired. Follow along as they tackle this question from opposing corners.

Dave JohnsonDave: I know where you’re going with this topic, so forgive me for rolling my eyes at you before you even lay out your initial argument. I have two drones right now — the Parrot AR Drone 2.0 and the DJI Phantom FC40. They are easy to fly (unlike the twitchy radio-controlled planes and helicopters I grew up on), let you be an amateur aerial filmmaker, and are reasonably affordable. They are incredibly fun. They’re a toy that both kids and adults can share. And they are science fiction come to life. What’s not to like? Oh, wait, I can see you about to find some things to grouse about.

Rick BroidaRick: Well, obviously. Your powers of deduction are staggering. Can you also figure out which area of the sky the sun will appear in tomorrow morning? As it happens, I own the same two drones as you, along with the comparatively tiny Hubsan X4 H107. And I agree: they’re ridiculously fun. But a couple recent experiences got me thinking about the dangers of these things, like what happens if a helicopter blade slices someone’s neck. Or an out-of-control drone falls from the sky on someone’s head. Such accidents will happen, and as more people buy these “toys,” they’ll happen more often. Not to get all Chicken Little on you, but the sky will literally be falling.

The DJI Phantom drone

Dave JohnsonDave: For the love of… oh, Rick. Really? Radio-controlled airplane and helicopter enthusiasts have contended with spinning blades for about 75 years now. I am unaware of any truly serious R/C injuries in all those years. Your example of a blade slicing someone’s neck: How would that happen, exactly? It seems unlikely, to say the least, and odds are good that the motors would stall before inflicting any serious damage, even if you how managed to maneuver a drone into the danger zone. And a drone falling from the sky on someone’s head — again, is this really the best you have? In addition to the almost supernaturally high odds against such an accident ever happening, these toy drones are just too light to hurt anyone. The Parrot AR Drone, for example, weighs about 400 grams. You could drop that from orbit and it wouldn’t hurt anyone, especially since  these vehicles simply don’t “fall out of the sky.” Even if the battery dies in flight, the rotors power down slowly as the battery charge drops, which means the drone lands more or less safely, even if you fly it recklessly until it runs out of power.  You are literally making something out of nothing.

Rick BroidaRick: Wow, I haven’t seen that kind of tunnel vision since I drove under the Detroit River. It’s awfully convenient of you to cite the Parrot when you’re also flying the Phantom, which is made of hard plastic and weighs over 2.5 pounds. It also has four large, unprotected blades. Can you really not see the potential for disaster when one of these things is in the hands of an unskilled, inexperienced pilot? Just the other day, I saw a first-time flier lose control of one of the little Hubsans, which got lost in the sun and was eventually recovered about a block away. He was awfully lucky it didn’t hit someone on the way down. The odds may be low, but you said it yourself: These things are very affordable and very fun, so lots more people will be flying them. Thus, the odds go up. You’re not so good with math, are you?

The Parrot Ar.Drone Dave: It’s likewise awfully convenient of you to choose the Phantom, which is one of the heaviest (if not the heaviest) drones you can buy. Again, you’re focusing on an obscure edge case and trying to rob everyone of drone fun as a result, like some sort of Luddite Grinch. Sure, there are always rare exceptions. I’m sure you could even “weaponize” a toy drone by intentionally trying to fly it into someone or something at high speed. By the same token, I could throw a baseball through your front window. So what? What, exactly is your point? What do you want to do about the hidden dangers lurking in our drones?

Rick: Hang on a sec, I’m getting my point on the phone so it can speak to you directly, slowly and with small words. Drones. Are. Dangerous. People need to understand that these aren’t those little featherweight Syma RC helicopters that move about 3 mph and can’t withstand a slight breeze. These are fast-moving, high-flying projectiles, and few folks have experience controlling such devices. All I’m saying is, let’s temper our slobbering excitement (“Wheee! Flying toys!”) and consider the consequences. Remember those floating lanterns? Oooh, pretty. Until one catches fire mid-air and lands on someone’s roof. Before the government has to start banning drones because people got hurt or worse, how about some simple regulations to keep everyone safe? Would that be so terrible?

The Hubsan X4 droneDave: I’m not sure I’ve ever disagreed with you more about anything. And to be clear, you don’t like walnuts in brownies, so that’s a pretty high bar. To wit, is there any problem you can imagine which you think that some sort of government regulation won’t solve? You’re right: Even something as innocuous and ancient as a candle can be a danger. Is it ever-so-remotely possible that a neighbor’s floating candle lantern will burn my house down or his drone will fly through my front window? Sure. Personally, I’m willing to accept that risk and I don’t need a law protecting me from the “danger” — of candles or drones. I don’t believe that we can — or should — regulate ourselves to a 100% risk-free society. Presumably, the thought of letting people have fun without government supervision terrifies you, but if you really want to fret about something, don’t forget that many drones have cameras that can shoot stunning video. Maybe you should worry about a stranger’s drone pointing a video camera in your back window.

Rick: Don’t even get me started on that! We’ve barely said two words about the creep factor, because now Peeping Daves — sorry, Toms — can do their thing from half a mile out. And so much for a nice quiet day hiking the trails when 20 Buzz Lightdrones are zooming overhead. But I digress. In much the same way I don’t want your car plowing into mine because you think it’s unfair or annoying or whatever for the government to regulate your texting while driving, I don’t want some drunken idiot crashing his drone through my window. You need a license to drive a car and fly a plane; is it so ridiculous to suggest that for drones of a certain size or range or the like, you also need a license? The affordability, capability, and availability of these new products mandates new thinking. Bam. Put that in your drone and fly it.

Dave JohnsonDave: Kudos! You almost make some sense. To directly address your question, no, it is not ridiculous to suggest that for drones of a certain size or range require a license, and probably even some mandatory training. The devil’s in deciding where the cutoff is. I’d be in favor of regulating commercial drones, but not a toy you might buy for your kids — or for yourself. And I don’t need a time machine to know that you and I will undoubtedly disagree on where we draw that line to begin regulating. The bottom line, Rick, is that for the most part, the drones we see in the hands of our neighbors (and ourselves) are Not Dangerous. They are not going to cause property damage or bodily injury, and to assert otherwise is to focus on the tiny percentage of edge cases that sound scary but lack any real substance. Shouldn’t you be off fretting about all the other make-believe tech scares, like Toyota’s sudden un-commanded acceleration and Tesla’s exploding batteries?

Rick BroidaRick: Like sands through the hourglass, so is logic finally trickling into your brain. I don’t know what form regulation or licensing would take, or even if it would help. I only know that these are a new breed of toy that’s exploding in popularity, and whether you spend $35 on one or $500, you’re now in control of a fast-moving, highly maneuverable hunk of plastic that whips around at neck level just as easily as it does 300 feet. Accidents are waiting to happen, and I just hope I’m not the one who plows into a toddler or truck driver or geek blogger. Consider yourselves warned, geek bloggers!

Who won? We’d love to hear from you. Weigh in with your opinion in the comments, or tweet @davejoh.

What other tech topics would you like to see Dave and Rick discuss? Send your ideas to Dave via Twitter @davejoh. And if you follow Dave, he promises to come to your home and explain something techy to your dad.

Photo credits: DJI, Parrot, Hubsan, Demand Media

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