Fairfax Tech Column

Fairfax Tech Column

21.12.2018 Fairfax Tech Column 126

I was at Dundullimal on Wednesday night this week where the local Mountain Bike (MTB) Club raced for the last time for the year. In line with our annual tradition, pizzas were ordered so the riders could sit around at the end of the race and enjoy some camaraderie off the track. Ordering pizzas to be delivered to Dundullimal is a minor issue as it is a bit difficult to get to by car and it involves a detailed description to arrive at the exact location. The delivery driver made it there in the end and a few pizzas were enjoyed along with tall tales about how much better we can ride once we were off the track…

We have the technology to solve part of this problem. Not the one about how good we ride but the one with pizza deliveries but there is one major flaw holding back many technological advances.

Delivering a pizza by drone is not breaking news. It was in November 2016 – over two years ago – that a pizza was first delivered by autonomous drone to a customer in New Zealand. Add multiple other companies that have trialled drone deliveries across the world – major international companies such as Amazon and 7-11 and Alphabet have all demonstrated drone deliveries. Surely then, with two years of testing since that first pizza delivery and multiple trials across the world, we should have witnessed an easy delivery after our Wednesday night race?

The largest hurdle holding back the widespread use of drones for deliveries – and in fact many other technological advances such as driverless cars - is not actually a technical issue. It is a regulatory one. The process for creating and regulating the laws that give us some degree of order in our society are steeped in hundreds of years of tradition. In Australia, our system based on the Westminster system, dates back to the mid-1800s. I am not convinced that regulations for drones was front of mind in developing our parliamentary system.

The current process involving government bureaucracies and passing laws through houses of parliament is simply not fast enough or, indeed, accountable enough to keep up with the changes we are seeing in the technology world. One issue is that companies around the world are committing significant funds, talent and time to develop new technology. That same devotion has not been given to the way we develop regulations for that technology.

Have a brief look at autonomous drone regulations. Firstly, a drone can be noisy. We have accepted that houses are built fronting highways and the resultant noise of cars and trucks along a busy highway has been generally accepted as part of the cost of living in a modern society. Noise from a drone is higher pitched and different to other background noise. How do regulators judge noise pollution from a drone contrasted to other background noise?

Next we need a chain of responsibility. If I have a car accident, the first finger that is pointed is at me as the driver and then possibly, in extreme cases, the manufacturer or even the road authority may be blamed for the accident. If an autonomous drone flew into an aeroplane or damaged a building or person, who is to blame? The owner was not necessarily flying the drone as it was autonomous. The organisation that actually wrote the software that controlled the drone might be to blame? Did the owner service the drone correctly or ensure the batteries were sufficiently charged? Were the wind conditions or temperatures outside the recommended specifications? Questions without sufficient regulatory answers.

You can see the Pandora’s box that is opened when the surface is scratched. The response to many technology advances so far has been for regulators to simply say no. It all seems way too complicated and there are lots of hard questions so no is the default response. Unfortunately, the answer no instantly stops all of the potential technological advances.

It is tough task and not an easy one for regulators – but one that needs to be tackled with vigour.

It has been a pleasure writing for Fairfax throughout the year and I wish all my readers a very Merry Christmas and all the best for a technological New Year.

Mathew Dickerson