This is how New York City covered the traffic in 1980.

It was a mish-mash of on-the-road CB reports, spotters in tall buildings, small planes flying over the highway.

And this is what the traffic in New York City looks like right now. It’s still a mish-mash, but an elegant and technically-savvy one. A series of satellite photos are overlaid with data from sensors along the roadways. It’s useful data, but it could still be refined more: what’s causing this sudden slow-down for example? Is there a lane blocked? Which one?

The traffic problem is a great example of what I’ll call the last mile problem in observing the state of the world. Here, the miles are vertical ones, those between the ground and satellite observation.

Information about the world is caught in a pincer. We have on-going, up-to-the-minute info on what’s happening all around us (though real-time Street View remains out of reach). We have stationary, orbiting satellites relaying information above us and other, mobile craft taking photos and surveying our environment. The former gives us granular, specific information about the world; the latter, big picture and trends. Google Traffic combines the two nicely, for our benefit.

But what about that middle space? Close, constant information about what’s happening at a big picture level?

That’s where drones can come in.

Drones have an image problem, nicely encapsulated here by Forbes‘ John McQuaid. Used primarily by the police and military, it’s hard to see them as much beyond hovering spies, peeking in our windows. But nearly all of our technology has started in the hands of the government: the Internet that allows us to share info in real-time, those satellites far above our heads. These are not bad tools, any more than drones are. They just have two advantages: 1) we’re used to them, and 2) we aren’t constantly hearing about how they’re killing people in Afghanistan and Yemen.

There’s a role for drones to play. They can host WiFi over a broad area, for example, and track data (like traffic!) in real-time and with great specificity. Streaming media, local shared data, weather information: localized drones hovering above us can simplify existing systems and add new capabilities. Things that in fifty years we’ll find so useful as to be unremarkable.

I am not suggesting that having a camera above one’s house controlled by the police isn’t cause for concern. But I am suggesting that privacy issues can be addressed with an eye toward making our lives easier. Allowing private sector unmanned aircraft, for example, can provide benefits without the same privacy concerns. (Other privacy concerns, yes. But not the more nefarious ones that come with government ownership.)

There’s a wealth of opportunity for tools, systems, and information in the massive empty space directly above you. The natural object to fill that space is an unmanned aircraft, armed with routers and sensors, not missiles and police cameras.

Something to think about next time you’re stuck in traffic.

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