Response to “Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA”

Lee’s story is very pertinent today. For example, there is a current legal case going on between the FAA and a hobby pilot who flew an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) near the University of Virginia. The FAA is trying to restrict how hobbyists and regular people can use UAVs. They actually have not come up with specific regulations yet, but they do not allow anyone to fly unmanned aerial vehicles without permission. Getting permission takes about 6-9 months and you can only get permission if you are a government entity (update: in March 2014, after this piece was written, the drone pilot won the case against the FAA). So the story is not just speculation about the future; this is something that’s happening right now.

Lee’s story does a great job bridging reality with science fiction. Most of the things that are talked about in the story are things that I will see during my lifetime. Anybody who’s in robotics, which is my particular field, has probably read Asimov and has been driven by his thinking. A similar dynamic exists in the field of space exploration: most of what people are thinking about right now has been driven by science fiction stories. If you look at what’s happening currently, where the technology is, how things are progressing, you can read it in some science fiction story that was written maybe 30 or 40 years ago.

When I first encountered the story, I was expecting it to be very futuristic – to happen maybe a hundred years in the future. But it struck very close to home. These are things that I think will happen in the next decade. So, this was a very realistic story. I was also expecting the story to focus on drones rather than people, so it was a nice surprise to that it was more about people and relationships, instead of just being about robots.

Sri Saripalli is an assistant professor in Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and the director of the Autonomous Systems Technologies Research and Integration Laboratory (ASTRIL). Before joining ASU, he was a member of the technical staff at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.