Tales Of Our Times: ‘Wright Brothers’ Flight Boosts Smart Tools For Regulatory Tasks

Tales of Our Times

New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water

‘Wright Brothers’ Flight Boosts Smart Tools For Regulatory Tasks

Testing out ideas is the ageless key to progress. For decades, the College of Engineering at New Mexico State University, with support from industry, has pursued ideas with environmental aims, which are tested in a formal contest held each spring in Las Cruces.

This year, the 29th Design Contest attracted 21 teams of contestants with their projects from 11 universities, and 25 judges. I was a first-time judge for a task that was developed and sponsored by Intel. Advisors came with teams from as far as Washington, California, Ohio and New Hampshire. As you would guess, the ages, experience and disciplines on hand made a lively mix.

For the contest, Intel supplied a drone and a licensed drone pilot. Two schools signed up for the task of designing a sensor array, which must be easily attached to the drone, to measure two common pollutants in industrial stack gases, namely Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and Particulate Matter (PM). The design was required to produce accurate, easy-to-read data for use in calculating these emissions in pounds per hour.

On a very calm morning, the drone flew the instruments around the 30-ft. high stack on the NMSU gas-fired power plant. The flight testing proceeded as you might expect at a 21st century Wright Brothers flight of a regulatory drone. We see the path to make needed progress.

The teams on the drone task were more expert with digital devices than with regulatory processes. And those processes result from the public forum. So I described that forum in a handout I gave the teams at the awards ceremony. My page was titled “Regulatory Background and Ideas to Build on 2019 WERC Task 2,” which said:

The regulatory process is officially explained by EPA at https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/basics-regulatory-process 

Yet, this formal system gives no picture of how much scuttling happens in the real forum, in which the basic views have changed little through nearly 50 years. Regulations for clean air and water are put together in a crowded national forum that involves high-tech private business of various kinds, public law, the community of lay persons, bureaus, and party politics. Lobby forces and now social media add divisive lingoes. Each of these diverse stakeholders brings to the forum its own special points of concern, which make news routinely. Some voices demand more stringent rules; other voices demand less stringent rules. The forum of stakeholders applies the tools of politics, but neglects newer tools.

One important concern is notably rare in this busy swirl. The major concern that is missing is concern for overall efficiency of regulation. “Overall efficiency” means getting more effective results in less time and at less cost to industry and taxpayers alike. Regulations have evolved slowly over decades; regulatory processes have grown more clumsy due to the little concern for efficiency per se that is shown in repeated hearings, in lawsuits and legal appeals of rules, in news from the forum and thus in the national mind.

Today’s smart tools – call them digital scouts – improve efficiency in countless applications in homes, sports, and business. Smart tools have the same potential, which stays largely unused, to remedy our nation’s long-known regulatory problems from the slow exchange of information. Looking ahead, related ideas can build regulatory uses of cost-saving drones and many other smart tools.

My page for students ended with six “Questions to build ideas” that refer to the peculiar dynamics that jostled regulations into their present form. My questions suggest ways to address these obstacles as part of developing smart tools for regulatory uses.

With today’s digital miracles, cheaper and more effective rules wait in the wings. For now, the nation stays locked on choosing how much regulation that is clumsy is better, while little is heard favoring better rules at less cost. Last month’s “Wright Brothers flight” of a regulatory drone showed the way of progress—a grounding in what has gone before, plus innovation.