German inventor Karl Benz was met with skepticism when he unveiled the first-ever horseless carriage — or automobile, as we now call them — on Jan. 29, 1886. There was so much distrust in early cars that Benz’s wife, Bertha, undertook a road trip in 1888 to silence critics who considered her husband’s invention inferior to horses. Despite the demonstration, only 25 Benz Patent-Motorwagens were sold between 1886-1893.
Just two decades later in the United States, thousands of people lined up to get their hands on one of Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T’s. Ford could produce a new Model T in less time than it took for the paint on its cars to dry — 91 minutes. From 1908-1916, more than 450,000 units were sold. By then the world had opened up to the fact that automobiles were the future.
The realization that unmanned drone aircrafts will take to Alaska’s skies within the next two years, including above the Tongass, will likely bring out the same emotions that Benz had to contend with more than a century ago: equal parts excitement and skepticism, with some distrust thrown in for safe measure.
Most of what we know about drones is how they’ve been used as weapons in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2002. But drones can do more than destroy.
In Alaska they have the potential to save lives. Scientific and exploratory missions that currently need human pilots to fly over vast, unpopulated stretches of terrain can instead be accomplished without putting people in danger. Other potential uses include monitoring forest fires, assessing volcanic plumes, inspecting remote infrastructure like certain parts of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, salmon redd tracking, counting animal populations and search and rescue efforts. ConocoPhillips used a 40-pound drone in September to survey marine mammals and ice floes in the Arctic in the first-ever commercial drone flight in U.S. airspace.
Aside from the practical applications, there will be economic benefits with attracting a new and growing industry to Alaska. A study paid for by drone manufacturers predicts 70,000 jobs will be created in the next few years. The same study says drone pilots are likely to earn around $100,000 annually. Alaska will get a slice of those jobs.
Alaska will have a better chance to either keep or lure back some of its college-aged population with available jobs in the fields of math, engineering, science and technology; to go along with its more traditional, high-paying oil, mining and fishing industries.
Even still, commercial drone use will be a fledgling industry, and regulatory oversight will be essential to ensure those controlling drones don’t overstep boundaries. It’s fear of NSA-like surveillance that people don’t trust. For that reason there needs to be transparency in how drones are operated and what companies and the government can and can’t do.
The Alaska Legislature created a task force in 2013 to examine gaps in current laws relating to unmanned aircrafts. Its findings are expected to be released in January. It’s important residents follow this topic and speak up as laws are created and amended.
Much like automobiles in the late 19th century, drones also will be met with skepticism and criticism, but that isn’t to say in 20 years the skies won’t be filled with them. It’s something we’ll have to get used to sooner or later, and therefore Alaska should be at the forefront of conversations about how this technology is used while also leading the way to ensuring public privacy is not compromised in the process.