About those Disney patent applications

Gregory McNeal has written an in-depth article on Forbes discussing the relationship between Disney’s patent applications and the need for the FAA to enact regulations that encourage, not stifle, innovation. The article is informative and well worth reading in full, but I’ll just excerpt a couple of points:

If Disney tried to use drones today, the FAA would immediately order them to cease their operations. That’s because the FAA believes that the commercial use of drones is unlawful (barring some limited exceptions) until such time as the agency promulgates new regulations.

Yes, the FAA’s rules are absurd for a number of reasons, not least of which is that Disney operates on vast areas of private land. Granted, the Disneyland property is surrounded on all sides by the city of Anaheim, but Disney World covers some 47 square miles. Shouldn’t such a large private property owner – especially one that regularly launches fireworks hundreds of feet into the air – be allowed to innovate within certain parameters? Say, below a certain altitude?

Even if the FAA promulgates new regulations, it is not clear that they will allow Disney’s flights. That’s because many believe that the FAA is planning to issue regulations that privilege certain types of drones and drone manufacturers — specifically those drones that have been previously used by the military or that are produced by major aerospace companies.

Government bureaucracies tend to model their rules based on what they know. And what the FAA knows about drones really doesn’t go much beyond what the public knows – i.e., drones that are used for military and intel purposes. Nothing scares the bejesus out of a bureaucrat more than the thought of something he doesn’t understand or, worse, something he can’t control. And private sector innovation threatens to force the FAA to accept the inherent risk in allowing such innovation to flourish.

There is also the problem, as McNeal mentions, of regulatory capture. Big government agencies tend to be part of a revolving door between those who regulate and those who are regulated. Many former bureaucrats become lobbyists for industries they once regulated. Many former leaders of regulated industries become heads of bureaucracies that they once answered to. The results in a feedback loop of money and industry cronyism, as each knows that the health of the other can affect his or her future career.

Seen from this point of view, an innovator like Disney must seem like an interloper, or a misfit. People who have been going through the revolving door just don’t know what to make of it.

Finally, McNeal notes Disney’s safety-consciousness. As someone who once worked at a Disney theme park (I was a monorail driver at Disney World – I won’t mention how long ago), I can personally vouch for how obsessed Disney is with safety. Disney’s corporate culture, how it values its public image, and of course its underwriters, all place excruciating pressures on Disney’s design and operations personnel to give Disney guests an experience that is both memorable and safe.

Disney is an ideal laboratory for the very sort of innovation that the FAA should be encouraging. Let’s hope that the FAA does the right thing.