Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Drones

Paranoia over drones misses out on the fact that they’re good at plenty besides killing and spying. From agriculture to mail delivery, Pierre Hines lays out the case for drones.

09.17.13 9:45 AM ET

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are most commonly referred to as drones, but other names such as “killer robot” and “Big Brother in the sky” have surfaced. Regardless of what they’re called, one thing is clear: drones are here to stay and will increasingly be used for nonmilitary, domestic applications.

The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that there will be 30,000 drones in U.S. airspace within the next 20 years (PDF). The news of future drone proliferation has sparked controversy and among many Americans who have legitimate safety and privacy concerns, but narrowly view drones as either spying or overseas killing machines. Although legislative and regulatory oversight is warranted, an onslaught of drone regulation isn’t, and it could cause setbacks in an industry that has the potential to usher in significant benefits to the economy and everyday lives of Americans.

As a former Army intelligence officer who frequently utilized drones, I originally shared the same narrow concerns about their dangers and potential menace. I mainly viewed them as counterterrorism and law-enforcement tools that were used in one of two ways: for surveillance purposes or for lethal affects. However, it’s clear that drones have other applications. Private parties have been authorized to use drones for experimental purposes, including some universities that are developing new methods of monitoring agriculture. Another use involves conducting missions that serve the public interest—e.g., search-and-rescue, Border Patrol, and firefighting missions. In fact, NASA has used already drones to monitor hurricanes, and during the recent fire at Yosemite National Park in California, a drone was used to track the blaze’s path.

It’s currently illegal to fly drones over major urban areas or use them for commercial purposes, but if and when that changes, drones might be used for everyday tasks like transporting equipment, people, and possibly your online Amazon purchases.

The first major obstacle to introducing drones for routine domestic use is concerns about the danger posed by malfunctions and crashes. The FAA already regulates the industry, like it does for commercial aircraft, and it manages safety risks by requiring drone operators to apply for certification. These certificates usually expire after two years and come with specific requirements like registering with air-traffic control, flying below a certain altitude, and flying only during daylight hours in some cases.

As of early 2013, there were more than 300 active Certificates of Waiver or Authorization. Next the FAA will establish six test sites across the country to conduct a full evaluation of how drones can be safely integrated into available airspace.

Still, it’s inevitable that drones will crash; I’ve experienced it during military operations overseas, and it will happen when drones operate in domestically. But piloted planes also crash, and it hasn’t led to them being categorically banned, and there is little evidence to suggest that drones are inherently more dangerous. After the test sites are established, the FAA and the drone industry will gain a deeper understanding of the issues that require additional safety precautions and implement further regulatory measures. Once those safety considerations are fleshed out, the FAA should move forward in integrating drones with as much risk mitigation as possible, while keeping in mind that eliminating all risk is impractical.

The second major obstacle to the proliferation of drones is the fear that they will infringe on individuals’ privacy. These are valid concerns given recent revelations about the expansion of the state’s surveillance reach and the ongoing growth in the private data-collection market, but they betray a misunderstanding about how drones operate. It’s critical to understand that drones are not inherently a surveillance tool, though that has been the military’s most frequent use for them thus far. The technology itself is only about flying without pilots, not snooping from above. Other military technologies—the Internet comes to mind—have been successfully adapted for domestic use without posing a significant threat to public safety or well-being, and drones should be no exception.

However, given the precedent for drone use, there is a legitimate fear that law-enforcement officials will use them to monitor the activities of American citizens, a scenario made possible by advancements in “wide-area surveillance.” Military drones, with ominous code names like Gorgon Stare and Constant Hawk, can monitor movement across an entire urban area. Efforts to curtail the domestic use of drones generally call for four privacy protections: (1) limiting tracking operations to specific individuals; (2) obtaining a warrant; (3) discarding any data unrelated to the specific target of the investigation; and (4) denying the use of drone-collected evidence in court if the evidence was obtained unlawfully or unintentionally.

The current legal regime is well suited to deal with most, but not all, of the privacy concerns drones create. For instance, it is settled law that high-powered technology cannot be used without a warrant to spy on Americans in their residences because the home is a protected place under the Constitution. One issue the legal regime is not prepared for is how to deal with constant surveillance outside the home—in parks, on roads, and in other public areas. Theoretically, the police could still tail you to accomplish the same objective without a warrant, but limited resources serve as a check on this power. The decreasing cost of drones and increasing capabilities mean that drones won’t strain police resources the same way old-fashioned police work would.

Legislation to restrict drone use amid privacy concerns has been proposed in at least 42 states. That isn’t the problem; the problem is that there’s no coherent legal framework at a national level. At least one state, Arizona, proposed legislation that distinguishes between how police can use drones to track U.S. citizens and noncitizens. One of the many benefits of drones is the ability to travel long distances, but if the law changes every time a drone crosses a county line, it could significantly affect the cost-benefit analysis of using them.

While safety and privacy concerns are well founded, we shouldn’t let them stunt the growth of an entire industry. And without an overall legal framework that aligns state laws, an overabundance of regulation has the potential to ground the drone industry before it ever takes off. Beyond the military and law-enforcement applications, drones have the potential to benefit our lives in everything from disaster relief to assessing power lines. In the not-too-distant future, if drone policy is properly established, you might look up and see not a bird, not a plane, but a drone.