Brian Snyder/Reuters
A drone, made by CyPhy Works, delivers a UPS package on Children's Island off the coast of Beverly, Mass., on Sept. 22, 2016. Despite such demonstrations, the first commercial uses of drones are more likely in monitoring crops, property, and infrastructure.

Automation doesn't always kill jobs. Sometimes, it adds them.

Automation has taken away millions of American jobs. But the booming aerospace industry shows how the story about automation is nuanced. 

When the University of Maine at Augusta launched its first noncredit course for commercial drone pilots in October, the seats quickly filled up. Among the 37 students are a cattle rancher, a construction company executive, a photojournalist, and several realtors.

“We are a bit of a motley crew,” says Tom Abbott, project manager for the university’s drone pilot training center, who is also taking the course. When they finish in mid-December, the students can take a test for federal certification to operate commercial drones, which are now being used in trials for everything from inspecting Maine’s potato crops to delivering 7-Eleven Slurpees in Nevada.

“We are at the very front edge of what’s going to happen,” says Mr. Abbott.

Drones are one of the hot spots of the aerospace industry. The private space industry is another, with companies from Elon Musk’s well-funded SpaceX to startups running out of dorm rooms as they rush to develop everything from low-earth satellite mapping and tracking to colonizing the moon and beyond.

But a funny thing happened on the way to aerospace’s future. The automation that was supposed to obliterate tens of thousands of jobs seems on closer examination less like a steamroller and more like a water flume, full of twists and turns that will transform jobs in unexpected ways. It will replace some positions and create new ones, not as some irresistible force but shaped by what consumers want, how governments regulate, and the evolution of cultural norms.

The aerospace industry could serve as a window into how these trends will reshape American employment in the years ahead. Some experts foresee technology moving quickly to change aerospace employment within a few years. But more cautious observers suggest that the transition could take decades. In that case, job losses to automation wouldn't come as a shock to the system, but part of the more natural ebb and flow in employment trends. 

If change comes more slowly than expected in aerospace – a sector that embraces automation – then it’s likely to come more slowly in other sectors of the economy as well.

The upsides of automation

Sometimes, new technology causes little to no disruption, adding new jobs without taking away old ones.

“Journalists and even expert commentators tend to overstate the extent of machine substitution for human labor,” David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), wrote in a paper last year. What they miss, he added, is that automation can often “increase productivity, raise earnings, and augment demand for labor.”

Take the commercial space sector. The small satellites now being shot into low-earth orbit will provide new capabilities, such as global tracking of commercial airliners, wireless Internet to poor, remote places, and faster satellite telephone communications to even more remote locations. Those are new services that would replace relatively few existing ones.

And if private space exploration takes off, all those jobs would be additive. French tourism won’t wither because wealthy space tourists want to breach the stratosphere. There are no moon-mining firms to displace if space companies begin churning out rocket fuel on the lunar surface.

“It’s a very dynamic time within the industry,” says Barret Schlegelmilch, who while pursuing his MBA at MIT has also cofounded a company that aims to commercialize the moon's resources. “If anything, the push toward developing these new automating technologies is creating more employment.”

Blues at the high end

Some decline in aerospace jobs is expected, but in unexpected places. Despite the boom in drones and the money pouring into private space ventures, the US government forecasts that the number of aerospace engineers will decline by 2 percent between 2014 and 2024.

That suggests a need to reevaluate the idea that automation is a boon for high-end knowledge workers and a threat for low-skilled employees and other popular assumptions.

One reason for the disconnect between booming technology and the dour job outlook may be that government forecasters hesitate to project growth when the demand for the new technologies remains uncertain. “I would argue that we should be conservative,” says James Franklin, division chief for industry employment projections at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Another reason is scale. Even if the drone industry creates 100,000 new jobs (as it’s expected to by 2025), there are several intervening years where it will register barely a blip in the $45 billion aerospace industry that currently employs some 500,000 scientific and technical workers and supports another 700,000 employees.

A third reason is that new innovations from other industries can boost aerospace without ever being called aerospace. “I’d argue that the floodgates are opening for outsiders to play in all different ways,” says Vandad Espahbodi, chief operation officer of Starburst Accelerator, an aerospace consulting firm. A software engineer in transportation may develop code that satellite networks can use; antivibration technology in medical implants could help stabilize space cameras.

Occupations survive

There’s a myth that automation kills occupations. Most of the time it just takes over certain work functions.

“Very few occupations will be automated in their entirety in the near or medium term,” a McKinsey report concluded last year. “Rather, certain activities are more likely to be automated.”

Similarly, the drone “hasn’t replaced the humans, but it has made them more efficient,” says Dan Leclair, a retired Air Force colonel and one of two instructors at the University of Maine’s noncredit drone course.

Ever since Amazon unveiled its Prime Air drone service on “60 Minutes” in 2013, Americans have been prepped for deliveries dropping from the air. Experiments are happening.

Switzerland’s and Australia’s postal services have tested unmanned drones. DHL Parcel successfully flew sporting goods and medicines to a Bavarian mountain community earlier this year. The convenience chain 7-Eleven flew food, coffee, and Slurpees to a private home in Reno, Nev., this summer. Chipotle delivered burritos to Virginia Tech students in September.

But the prospect of widespread drone deliveries looks to be several years away, at least. There are technical challenges (how do you land a drone on someone’s porch?), legal limitations (commercial drones can’t fly beyond the operator’s line of sight), commercial questions (do drone deliveries make economic sense?), privacy concerns, and even cultural hurdles.

“Do we as a society want to darken the skies with all these drones flying around?” asks Mike Hirschberg, executive director of AHS, an international society for helicopter, drone, and other vertical flight technology. “Do we really need that bar of soap in three hours?”

The Federal Aviation Administration is committed to loosening restrictions step by step. But it is still a few years away from building the infrastructure – the “highways in the sky” – that will allow the industry to expand. And high-profile drone accidents, including a couple that collided with jets at London’s Heathrow airport, are likely to keep regulators cautious and give fodder to industries and labor unions threatened by the technology.

Smaller disruption

Rather than disrupting the huge delivery business, drones are more likely to cut into much smaller industries, such as monitoring crops, inspecting bridges, and fighting fires. Already, drones inspected a big share of Maine’s potato crop this year, looking for signs of drought or pest damage. The next step, already in the experimental stage, would be for drones to do the spraying as well, reducing the work done by the nation’s 5,000 or so cropdusters.

The technology may also reduce the number of inspectors who currently have to monitor every bridge and electrical tower. In New Mexico, the BNSF railroad is experimenting with drones that inspect track.

Fighting forest fires could be made less dangerous. Last month, Lockheed and its recent acquisition, Sikorsky, used four drones and autonomous helicopters to locate and douse a controlled fire in Rome, N.Y., and then conduct a mock search and rescue.

Says Colonel Leclair, the drone instructor: “I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of what we can do with these things.”

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