American business history is littered with stories of businesses that were started by, or profit off of, black folks but ritually lock us out. The black community spends billions on hair-care products, but most of the stores and companies we buy from aren’t for us or by us.
African Americans drive the music industry, but for decades we didn’t own our own studios, let alone tracks or, in some cases, even our own names. As Chance the Rapper alluded to in his BET Awards speech last week, marijuana is about to become a billion-dollar legal business in America, but unless your name is Snoop or Khalifa, black folks are being locked up and locked out of that emerging market.
Which is why Terrance X. Johnson, a former Disney exec-turned-entrepreneur, decided to get in on the ground floor of one of the fastest-growing markets in America, and hopefully fly his way to the top.
Welcome to the drone age. What was once a hobby for nerds and graduate-school engineering projects has become one of the fastest-growing business technologies since the copy machine. Lightweight unmanned automated vehicles—drones, to the rest of us—have become the go-to technology for dozens of industries across the United States, opening up doors to new jobs, and possibly eliminating others if you fall behind.
Film and production companies are using drones to get action shots without having to rent cranes or risk camerapeople’s lives. Construction companies are using drones with a GoPro or other lightweight camera on the front as a cheaper way to survey land for development. Real estate agents are using drones to do live walkthroughs with customers across the country. Amazon.com has patented “drone hives” to deliver products in densely populated urban areas. Soon, gentrifiers won’t even have to leave their patios to get specially treated organic quinoa from the Whole Foods Amazon division.
Similar to what happened to VCRs, cellphones and hybrid cars, the cost of drones has dropped precipitously, from about $5,000 for a drone the size of a briefcase in 2010 to less than $1,000 for a drone smaller than a laptop in 2017. The industry itself is humming along—it’s worth about $2 billion now—but analysts expect drone and drone-related business to be worth over $100 billion by 2020.
The biggest growth area for drones, however, is in law enforcement, and that’s where Johnson comes in.
“This is just another business we’re getting locked out of,” Johnson—a tall, bearded man who looks more like Bill Russell’s shorter cousin than a technology entrepreneur—told The Root.
“Drones are the future,” he kept saying as he showed me several drone models one sunny afternoon in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. I must admit that I was skeptical. To me, drones hovering around watching our every move, dropping off pizzas, is like some horrible surveillance state from Minority Report, not an emerging business opportunity.
Johnson and his team see otherwise. He recently started TCJ AeroTech, one of the first black-owned and -operated drone companies in the United States, and he sees an explosion of jobs in drone technology, especially in law enforcement.
Police departments across the country are in a war of drones that they’re highly unprepared for. On the one hand, drones are being used to rescue victims of car accidents, locate missing children, hunt down fugitives and even serve as secondary body cameras to observe police behavior. On the other hand, drone crime (yes, that’s actually a thing) has skyrocketed.
Johnson’s team notes that prison wardens are reporting drones being used to drop drugs, weapons and other contraband into prison yards. Drones are being used to spy on and blackmail people, drones are being used to record ATM numbers from the sky, and in some rare instances, criminals may be using drones to jam police signals.
With African Americans in a constant battle with oppressive law enforcement, Johnson and his team see an opening for black folks to get ahead of the curve and get some skills that could put us at the forefront of changes in law enforcement.
“If they’re going to chase us with them,” he said, “we might as well own them.”
To operate UAVs, you have to get a Part 107 FAA Certification, which requires paying for a class and then paying for an exam. Oh, and by the way, you probably have to already own a drone to practice with, which may put this new industry out of reach for many African Americans. TCJ AeroTech, however, doesn’t want education to be an impediment to black success. (Just think of the importance of typing skills in the 1960s, computer skills in the ’80s and online skills in the 2000s.)
“We offer certification classes, jobs and internships,” Johnson explained, all with the express purpose of making sure that the technology gap for this new industry doesn’t hold our community back.
After talking to members of the TCJ staff, not to mention some random drone enthusiasts who were in the park that day, I do realize that change is coming. New businesses, new jobs and new educational opportunities are ahead, and the black community needs to be ready.
Drone commercial licensing is exploding, and soon FedEx, UPS and local businesses will start using drones for basic delivery. Neighborhoods that are usually locked out of public services may get a chance because of drones’ ability to sweep in and sweep out. Instead of call centers, soon 911 operators and EMTs may be on the scene with you through camera-mounted drones.
I’m still skeptical about whether black drone operators will have an impact on police brutality or racial profiling, but I do know this: If we all know that Big Brother is coming, it might be slightly less painful if it’s run by some brothers.