A House of Lords report released in March 2015 claims that the commercialised use of RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems) could create 150,000 jobs in the European Union by 2050.
These jobs are likely to come from, amongst others, the wealth of new companies being accepted by the Civil Aviation Authority to fly drones commercially. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Robert Goodwill MP, wrote in the report that around 670 permissions had been granted for commercial unmanned aircraft in 2014. He also wrote that:
“RPAS have become increasingly popular as an alternative to the use of manned aircraft for aerial surveillance; in future they could be used to carry out many more tasks, such as search and rescue, deliveries and construction repair work”
In the Unites States, the huge job-creating potential of drones has also been a cause for excitement. In a 2013 study, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicted that over 100,000 new jobs could be created in the United States’ drone industry by the year 2025. These jobs are predicted to have a combined impact of around $82 billion on the US economy.
Whilst initially, the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration were more hesitant than the UK’s CAA to provide commercial drone permissions, the year 2015 saw a huge increase in the number of companies being allowed to operate their drones commercially.
In 2014, just 12 companies were allowed to operate in the USA’s national airspace. Since March 2015, however, the regulatory body have been making rules far more flexible, leading to over 1,300 authorisations being granted by September 2015. This willingness to authorize more and more companies shows attempts from policymakers not to stifle the huge job opportunities which are emerging with the new industry.
One of the hubs of the expanding US drone industry is in North Dakota, where the Grand Sky Development Park is set to become the USA’s first commercial UAV airport. Here, a variety of drones will take flight, controlled by pilots who could be anywhere around the globe. The project is expected to create around 3,000 jobs by 2016, capitalizing on the 45,000 square miles of specifically authorised airspace in the state.
The University of North Dakota, too, is capitalising on the wealth of job opportunities in drone flying, with a new degree programme being offered in unmanned aviation. However, it’s far from the only US university providing drone qualifications, with Lewis University, Illinois, and the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida amongst others offering UAV related courses.
Described as a mix of science, engineering and technology, some are already predicting that universities offering these courses could soon offer better job prospects than traditional airlines, as even traditional planes become pilotless over time.
House of Lords
Civilian Use of Drones in the EU (March 2015)
Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International
The Economic Impact of unmanned aircraft systems integration in the United States (March 2013)
The Federal Aviation Administration
Authorizations Granted Via Section 333 Exemptions.
Grand Sky UAS Park Opens for Development in Grand Forks County, N.D. (February, 2015)
University of North Dakota
Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics (2015)
The New York Times
Just Don't Call it a Drone (February 2013)
As drones steadily evolve, the list of tasks they are able to carry out continues to grow.
For many companies this means that jobs considered too time consuming, challenging, or outright dangerous for workers to do can instead be assigned to drones, which can complete the task far more efficiently and safely than their human counterparts.
For workers, this can also be seen as a positive step, ushering in an age where monotonous, dangerous and unpleasant work is taken out of their hands by machines. What’s more, new job opportunities will emerge in monitoring or piloting these machines.
One of the pioneers of drone job automation is Amazon, with its plans for a UAV delivery service, known as ‘Prime Air’, which is currently being tested in the USA, the UK and Israel. The ecommerce giant applied for the patent in April 2015, and imagines not only using autonomous UAVs to drop packages all the way to customers' doors, but also to carry goods wherever they happen to be when the delivery is on its way - including out to sea. This will be made possible using the GPS on smartphones.
As well as Amazon, Google, Walmart and a number of other companies are also testing delivery drones. This is unlikely to be the last we hear of the novel and exciting form of drone job automation.
Amazon has claimed that Prime Air customers could receive their packages within 30 minutes of making an order. If the company’s plans do become actualised, we may soon be living in a world where an item of clothing could make it to your door faster than a takeaway.
To ensure that deliveries are carried out safely, Amazon’s semi-autonomous drones are envisioned as being able to communicate with each other on factors such as weather conditions, optimal routes and landing conditions. The drones will also be able to constantly monitor for - and avoid -people and animals, as well as optimizing routes away from busy roads and population centres.
In a publicly released letter, Amazon’s vice president of Global Public Policy, Paul Misener had this to say:
“One day, seeing Amazon Prime Air will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today, resulting in enormous benefits for consumers across the nation”
As Amazon and others are working with autonomous drones to increase their customer service, in Japan, construction giant Komatsu are using UAVs to automate jobs for an entirely different reason; in order to deal with the chronic worker shortage facing the nation.
The problem is that today there are far more jobs available in Japan than there are people, with a reported 109 jobs on offer for every 100 job seekers. Seeing as a recent government report predicts that Japan’s population will decrease further still, it seems likely that this situation will only become more serious into the future.
To respond to this concerning shortage of workers, Komatsu plan to use UAVs and driverless bulldozers to automate the foundation work on their sites, with human workers only required to carry out a monitoring role in this process.
UAVs will scan entire sites, and send the precise, high-quality images to computers, which will build full 3D models. Using these models, unmanned bulldozers and excavators will construct replica site plans to work from.
This automated cycle could become a benchmark for future construction work around the world, with the company themselves describing the project as a step towards “the job sites of the future”.
Another pioneer in drone job automation is BP, who, along with UAV technology company AeroVironment, were the first to have commercial UAVs authorised for use over land in the USA. Using both fixed wing and multi-rotor UAV drones, the company are able to monitor buildings and pipelines in the harsh conditions of Alaska’s North Slope, as well as mapping out land outcrops for exploration purposes.
BP’s fixed wing Puma AE UAV drones can fly for over three hours, and in winds of up to 30mph, meaning that the company no longer need to assign workers to these challenging monitoring tasks. Originally purposed as a military drone, the Puma drone is hand launched, and is 4.5ft long with a 9ft wingspan.
Tim Conver, the chairman of AeroVironment, commented in a press release on the project that:
“this new solution is now helping BP manage its extensive Prudhoe Bay field operations in a way that enhances safety, protects the environment, improves productivity and accomplishes activities never before possible”
Amazon Prime Air.
US Patent and Trademark Office
Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Delivery System (April 2015)
Amazon Petition for Exemption (July, 2014) Accessible
The incredible shrinking country (March 2015)
Japanese firms near crisis point as labour shortage deepens. Reuters (July 2014)
Komatsu Embarks on SMARTCONSTRUCTION: ICT solutions to construction job sites (January 2015)
Drones Next Job: Construction Work, Komatsu to Use Unmanned Aircraft, Bulldozers to Automate Early Foundation Work. Wall Street Journal (Jan 2015)
Drones provide BP with eyes in the skies (November 2014)
BP and AeroVironment Launch First FAA-Approved, Commercial Unmanned Aircraft Operations Over Land and Water; Providing Comprehensive GIS Services (June 2014)
It may be exciting to foresee drones taking over certain roles; hovering usefully overhead, mapping farmland, monitoring construction sites or delivering packages. It may, too, be exciting to think of the productivity and efficiency that they promise, and how they lack that inconvenient human desire for wages, food and breaks. But what about the workers who these drones are replacing?
The Guardian predicted in 2014 that many pilots could potentially lose their jobs as a result of automated drones, but they aren’t the only ones whose livelihoods could prove to be at risk. Whilst the argument is often made that it’s broadly only ‘menial’ jobs being lost; that’s no reassurance to the approximately 47 per cent of the US labour market whose jobs were found in 2013 to be threatened by mechanization.
It would appear that agriculture is the field where the most jobs are at risk from drones, with trade groups claiming that as much as 80 percent of commercial drone use could be within the agricultural sector. If drones are used to their full potential, we could see the number of people employed in agriculture drastically dropping in years to come.
Whilst it’s been the case in the past that technological developments have led to more jobs being created; there are suggestions that this current wave of technological advancement may not follow the positive trend of the past.
Gerald Huff, in a fascinating piece published in The Daily Beast, explains that by taking averagely skilled jobs from normal people, new technology could leave those without elite skills far worse off than they were before their job was automated. He says:
“A small group with the most valued skills and talents - creative, intellectual, entrepreneurial - will earn great rewards. For the remaining jobs that machines can’t do, the qualification will be “being a human,” and the basic rules of supply and demand will drive those wages to the legal minimum.”
Huff also makes the point that, whilst in the past technologies have automated simple, repetitive jobs, meaning that people have transitioned from these jobs to thought-requiring ones, this next wave of technology could see thinking jobs replaced by machines too.
“Project the kinds of improvements we’ve seen in the last 20 years forward and in one or two decades we will see smart machines, both software and hardware, able to substitute for the majority of humans doing complex but routine work in both the knowledge and service sectors.”
At a time when virtually all semi-skilled jobs are at risk from technological advancement, and more and more skilled jobs are also coming under threat, is there the potential for a future where there is no work available for those not capable of carrying out the more technologically challenging jobs?
We live in a world of ever increasing autonomy, from self-scanning checkouts and driverless taxis, to digitalised factory production and sales. Could drones prove just another of these threats to normal people as they become more and more capable of carrying out their jobs instead of them?
When robots take our jobs, humans will be the new 1%. Here's how to fight back (March 2014)
Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne
The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? Oxford Martin School (September 2013)
Mary Clare Jalonick, Associated Press
After being grounded by lack of federal rules, agricultural use of drones set to take off. US News (July 2015)
Technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed, says 140 years of data. The Guardian (August 2015)
Workers' New Robot Overlords Will Probably Not Be Welcome. The Daily Beast (February 2015)
A concern closely associated with the development of new technologies is that of artificial intelligence, and the pace at which it is advancing.
Drone companies routinely express that their overarching aim is to create fully autonomous flying machines. This aim is not limited to those creating commercial and leisure drones, but is also strived towards in lethal military drones. This fact has led to many raising concerns around this fast-developing field.
These concerns are mainly associated with the development of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (or LAWS), and have been voiced from a number of experts in recent years, most notably in the journal Nature by Stuart Russell of the University of California, who stated that
“LAWS could violate fundamental principles of human dignity by allowing machines to choose whom to kill — for example, they might be tasked to eliminate anyone exhibiting 'threatening behaviour'. The potential for LAWS technologies to bleed over into peacetime policing functions is evident to human-rights organizations and drone manufacturers.”
Questions are being asked about just how smart we are willing to allow our machines to become. Russell said that this could be a question we have to face sooner than we might think.
“Technologies have reached a point at which the deployment of such systems is — practically if not legally — feasible within years, not decades.”
Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Tesla motors and Space X is another expert known for expressing concerns about how far we should pursue the development of thinking machines. Both of his companies strive to utilize the most cutting-edge technology, and despite this, he confessed to having significant worries about AI:
“I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence, if I were to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it's probably that… with artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon”
Stephen Hawking, one of the leading minds of our time, has also raised concerns about the threats posed by the emergence of artificial intelligence. When speaking to the BBC, he said that artificial intelligence could have a devastating impact on our species.
“I think the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it would take off on its own, and redesign itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.”
Hawking said that the primitive forms of artificial intelligence which we currently have access to have proven very useful, but will become a huge risk when their intelligence begins to rival that of a human.
Chelsea Sabo, who works as part of the Green Brain Project – one which equips robots with some of the functioning capabilities of bees – similarly raised concerns about highly developed artificial intelligence. She was, however, clear that although there could potentially be a risk far into the future, we are at present nowhere close to creating an artificial ‘brain’ anywhere near that of a human. With regards to the artificial intelligence being developed by the Green Brain Project, Sabo had this to say:
“People are hyper-aware about artificial intelligence, and in reality, what we’re doing is so far off what people tend to think of as artificial intelligence … our drone wouldn’t ever do anything which we didn’t tell it to”
You can read the rest of our interview with Chelsea Sabo here.
Whilst a lot of positive attention is given to the development of drones’ physical and intellectual capabilities, some argue that we could soon find ourselves confronted with questions of how smart we should allow them to become.
Stuart Russell, Sabine Hauert, Russ Altman and Manuela Veloso
Robotics: Ethics of artificial intelligence. Nature (May 2015
Elon Musk: artificial intelligence is our biggest existential threat. The Guardian (October 2014)
Stephen Hawking warns artificial intelligence could end mankind. BBC (December 2014)