Let’s Keep Our Skies Open to Drones

IMG_2070My friend and financial advisor, Ellis Wyatt III, who I am pleased to relate, has recovered nicely from the hate mongering he endured after the 2008 financial crisis, tells me he’s got a new issue on his radar. In the last weeks, he’s disconcerted about the possibility of increased restrictions on American freedoms, most particularly our ability to own and fly drones.

“Add this to not being allowed to enjoy an occasional cigar at a ball park,” he says. “Not being able to catch the fish we wish to catch in the manner and season in which we wish to catch them. And not being able to drive our Range Rovers through the areas in which we wish to drive, and we should all be feeling a bit put out.”

The cause for Ellis’s concern regarding his recent drone purchases should not be lightly passed over. When I went to visit him at his estate, he took me out back to see his drone collection. It was located in a custom-built hanger, not far from his quarter horse stable and his classic car garage. The drone collection takes up only a small corner of the hanger; the remaining floor space he reserves for his Cessna 310.

“This indulgence in drone collecting,” he says, “began about five years ago when I passed by a display kiosk at the Towson Mall. I paid about fifty dollars for my first drone. But my interest has grown rapidly ever since.” He shows me his first quadcopter, then moves on to an octocopter, a hexacopter, and finally a fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the model of which he asked me not to specify. “The prices can range anywhere from thirty bucks to many thousands,” he says. “Some will fly only a dozen or so yards for five minutes on a battery; others can go hundreds of miles for up to twenty hours.”

At least once a day, Ellis visits his drone hanger and checks in with Herb Denning, a former Royal Air Force captain and security expert. Denning works at a small console room housed inside the hanger, and he’s Ellis’s dedicated drone pilot. “I use the drones mainly to surveil my property,” Ellis says, taking up a joystick and sitting before a bank of monitors. “They’ve helped cut costs. Whereas I used to employ several security guards, the new arrangement requires only a pilot, a mechanic, and a few Rotties.” Ellis has shown me his kennel on previous occasions.

“And of course,” he continues, concentrating on one screen and vigorously handling his joystick. “I didn’t show you before, but I have a number of weaponized, defensive drones.” Like the Rotties, he tells me that these drones serve as a deterrent to those who might wish to breach his moat. “More to the point,” he says, “the defensive drones give me the latitude to fly over the estate and take down any intruding state or local law enforcement trespassers, as well as federal government and un-neighborly private surveillance snoopers. That way I don’t have to brave the cold with my shotgun.”

Ellis says that other people’s drones represent an increasing threat. “Read the news,” he says, “local law enforcement agencies are employing drones with cameras, mace, and Tasers to patrol ground and airspace and to allegedly prevent crimes. Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has recently appointed a task force to study how private drone ownership and air space usage can be limited.”

The FAA says that a drone flying into public airspace runs the risk of interfering with commercial aircraft, but Ellis assures me that such a threat is as likely to come from government-operated drones. “The Feds are always positing the irresponsibility of freedom-loving Americans,” he says. “But most drone owners are conscientious flyers, and even so, your average drone doesn’t fly that high. Besides, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the idea that drone and commercial flight collisions can be totally avoided is a pipe dream. Accidents will happen. That’s the price we pay for innovative technologies. A society founded on entrepreneurial risk has to assume occasional losses. The same is true in the financial industry, Mark, as you know.”

I am somewhat sympathetic with Ellis’s concerns about the U.S. government, local law enforcement agencies, and nosey neighbors using drones to surveil private property. But I’m unsure about the need for people to have weaponized drones, so I ask Ellis, instead of assuming that the best solution is to ramp up drone ownership and weaponization, why don’t we work toward preventing drone use altogether. “Maybe if government agencies and American citizens agreed to keep drones out of the skies,” I suggest, “we could avoid potential domestic conflicts, regional skirmishes, and accidents.”

“My dear idealistic friend,” Ellis says, abandoning his joystick, making a fist, and using his opposite hand to crack his knuckles. “Do you think we are a former world empire where Bobbies run around naked with nightsticks? Seriously, you’re not asking to shut down an entire new economic growth industry are you? If so, it’s never going to happen. Besides, when drones are illegal, only criminals will own drones, or something like that. The rest of us will be sitting ducks.”

“Look to your history,” he continues, “The government tried to ban alcohol, but what happened? Organized crime made a fortune on it. Even today, as the government prohibits drugs, drug abuse is at an all-time high, our prisons are overflowing, and all of those American dollars are jumping the border. And then there’s Russia. They prohibited innovation and capitalist enterprise for seventy years and what happened there? They still haven’t managed to stabilize the price of Pampers.”

“No my friend,” Ellis continues, “drone ownership is a fundamental right and drone owners need to organize, get involved with the National Drone Association (NDA) and the National Association of Drone Sportsmen (NADS). We don’t need further attacks on our freedoms: registration of drone ownership, limits on where and how high we can fly, and prohibitions on the items we’re allowed to mount on our drones. We should really be opening up the skies for everyone: not only to drone owners but to sky lovers in general. All we have to do is look to nature. When so many birds seem to navigate without incident, certainly humans can learn to do the same.”

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