Drones: product or service?

Drones: product or service?

It was news to me, certainly, that a drone maker like DJI would be responsible for geofencing its products to limit their use in military situations, as this article from The Register explains. It went on to be widely reported, including in the Financial Times headlines above.

I’m left with all sorts of questions:

  • Has DJI complied voluntarily or are there laws which require it to implement these controls at the request of governments?
  • If it has done so to meet legal obligations, in what jurisdiction were they enforced? Would it be the geographical area of the no fly zone, or DJI’s headquarters in China, or in a country like the US or UK which might require the restrictions to assist their military operations?
  • How does the geofencing implementation work in practice? Does the drone simply refuse to enter the restricted airspace, hovering at the margins like a gamer might come up against the invisible walls of a virtual world? Does it turn on its tail and return to its owner? Are there alerts in software to warn users they are approaching a no fly area?

The article’s military context, highlighting how lives may be at risk, obviously adds a dramatic element. However, it prompted a much wider range of thoughts about how this might affect users in more mundane scenarios and across a range of autonomous products, from drones to self-driving cars.

It seems like an area where a sudden leap in technological capability and a sudden drop in price which has revealed the inadequacies of existing policy. No fly zones, for instance, were comparatively self-policing in the past: the financial considerations and skill requirements of aviation meant there were comparatively few aircraft for national authorities to keep track of in their airspace. Now, in the blink of an eye, anyone with a few hundred dollars and a basic command of gamepad-like dexterity can put a drone in the sky.

I’m also left with the realisation that anyone who buys into the first generation of mass autonomous machines – be they self-driving cars or drones – is buying a service rather than a product. The maker, not the user, can and will be the ultimate arbiter of its capabilities. Today, it seems those makers are under-regulated and in a nascent period where users are reliant on private companies picking and choosing the right decisions about the behaviour of their devices.

For more MEX musings on the user experience of drones – one of the major emerging challenges of digital industry – try:

Part of MEX Inspirations, an ongoing series exploring tangents and their relationship to better experience design.

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