The Innovator: Here comes the taco drone

Before he invented Pintofeed, a smartphone-enabled pet food dispenser, Carlos Herrera made drones. How far morality played a role in his decision to move out of the drone business isn’t clear but there were, at least, other factors. People spend $100bn a year on pets globally, while commercial drones – the kind that don’t spy on or kill people – remain an unproven market proposition.

The US Federal Aviation Authority has pledged to allow the use of commercial drones in 2015 and many technology entrepreneurs are already positioning themselves for take-off. One drone start-up, Airware, raised $10.7m last month. We shouldn’t be afraid of drones, say their advocates, telling us that potentially beneficial uses include agriculture, construction and inspection, and even delivering aid packages to remote regions.

But nothing can happen yet, at least not in the US – and this is just the latest example of how the pace of innovation has outstripped the law. It’s a particularly important one because it’s a physical rather than a digital innovation.

On the digital landscape, Facebook and Google moved far quicker than any privacy regulators could react. Now the same frenzied pace of innovation that characterises internet innovation, for good or ill, is coming to the hardware market. Thanks to 3D printing and other technologies, a piece of hardware can rapidly be iterated and improved.

This presents huge challenges for regulators. And what goes for drones and 3D printing, also goes for wearable cameras and all sorts of as yet undreamt-of gadgets. Many will pose new questions for society about what people should expect from personal privacy, copyright control or even – in the much-publicised case of the 3D printed gun – community safety.

Lawmakers need to recognise that this wave of innovation is about to hit them – and react quickly. Entrepreneurs need certainty over what they are allowed to do – and citizens want reassurance.

Tacocopter, a far-fetched yet eye-catching idea (and not a hoax, insists co-inventor Dustin Boyer) to deliver Mexican food via an unmanned aerial vehicle, got to the stage where money was raised and hardware built. But the slow pace of regulation meant that the project had to be abandoned.

Meanwhile, grown men (it’s mostly men) in Silicon Valley and beyond are approaching drones with the same glee as a 10-year-old boy with a remote-controlled car.

Some hardware entrepreneurs are acting responsibly. One drone start-up is drawing up an “Air Code of Ethics” to distinguish industry signatories from the hobbyists who crash into tall buildings or perv through bedroom windows.

That’s not all. Memoto is a wearable camera that takes photos every 30 seconds, and is a privacy outcry waiting to happen – as its Swedish creators are well aware. Rather than being deployed to spy on others, the company hopes that the device will be used for “life logging”, an offshoot of the “Quantified Self” movement where people track themselves by monitoring their own body.

Memoto’s is a more rational approach than that of Google and Facebook, which have consistently tried to change consumer sentiment around privacy in their favour by pushing its legal limits. That is easier in the online world, where the infringement seems largely abstract, and customers more likely to acquiesce.

A drone hovering over your back garden is somewhat harder to ignore. Those start-ups which succeed in rebranding the technology from killing machine to convenience will do so by acting responsibly. But regulators must try harder to keep up. Failure to do so will only encourage more to innovate outside the law – or, like Pintofeed inventor Herrera, decide to make pet gadgetry instead.

Tim Bradshaw is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent. The Undercover Economist returns on July 6

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