On Topic: The economics of drones

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I’ve not kept track, but I believe they’re clustered at the same corner just about every Friday evening, rain or shine. I see them as I drive onto the First Avenue bridge out of downtown Cedar Rapids — a clutch of hearty souls standing vigilant with hand-written signs that proclaim various anti-war messages.

Good for them. But on a recent drive-by I spotted a sign that read: “Down With Drones.”

Now, I get the sentiment, as the discussion becomes hotter and louder over drone use by our government — for assassinating foreigners deemed bad guys as well as potentially spying on American citizens. As Ben Stone of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Iowa chapter remarked to this newspaper last year, “Those things really give Americans the creeps.”

A current Twitter petition objecting to government spying on its citizens lists such diverse signatories as MoveOn.org, the Other 98 Percent and the Green Party of Rhode Island.

But if we take away the moral implications — and I’m not saying we should, I’m merely presenting the consideration — the development of drones can make viable economic sense.

Two basic economic questions need to be addressed: Does it achieve its objectives? How much does it cost to get there?

The U.S. military began researching unmanned aerial vehicles — UAVs, as they’re called in the industry — as far back as 1917, only eight years after the Wright Brothers of Ohio sold their first airplane to the Army. By fiscal year 2013, some $26.16 billion — yes, you read that correctly — was requested for UAV funding in President Obama’s budget.

But the thing to keep in mind is UAV technology has application beyond killing and surveillance. The list of real and potential uses for drones seems to lengthen by the day.

German train operators are testing drones to nab graffiti artists. Energy corporations such as BP want them to locate pipeline cracks in the Arctic.

Scientific possibilities could include keeping an eye on the rise of sea ice.

Reuters reports South African officials have tried using UAVs to spot rhinoceros poachers, and pizza restaurants in the United Kingdom are experimenting with the notion of drone delivery service. (No one’s yet worked out how much the expected tip should be.)

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin earlier this month urged using them instead of constructing expensive and impractical fences along the U.S.-Mexico border.

And in the future, your trusted pilot may be on the ground in front of a computer screen, not in the cockpit of the plane that carries you and your fellow passengers.

Here in the Corridor, when Rockwell Collins announced June 18 it had completed initial tests with NASA of a new communications system to enable safe UAV operation in U.S. airspace, Rockwell’s Dave Schreck noted that system ultimately also could allow for agriculture use as well as “other applications that are unforeseen today.”

Fitting for this spectrum of uses, drones come in a variety of sizes. Some can weigh as little as 0.035 ounces, but others are as enormous as an Airbus A320 jet.

You even could buy your own online: A quick glance under “shop for drones” calls up a Raven “brushless” unit for $89, tax not included, and a Skybotix CoaX Autonomous UAV Micro Helicopter for $4,999, “ready to fly” right out of the box and with free shipping.

And while there may be fewer jobs for pilots, other occupations will be generated.

“Manufacturers and start-ups see that there will be great potential. This is going to be a great industry,” Gretchen West, Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems executive vice president, told Reuters.

So while our concerns about weapons and privacy are unarguably valid and need to be part of our global conversation about the future deployment of drones, the devices themselves present astonishing opportunities.

The sky, you could say, is the limit.


And speaking of things to come, in this column for April 28 I noted that Jeffrey Skilling was aiming to have his 24-year jail sentence reduced. Several of you emailed to express your outrage, if that’s not too strong a word, that this might come to pass, no matter that the former Enron CEO’s actions lost $11 billion of shareholders’ investments and 20,000 employees their jobs.

Well, it’s happened. Skilling last week got his wish as 10 years were trimmed, and he could be out as early as 2017. Not sure what the moral is here. Let me know if you do.

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