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Drones In Our Skies- Should We Be Concerned?

Updated on April 4, 2015

A Piqued Interest in Drones Today

I was out having a nice time with a friend the other night, and as we were catching up with each other I overheard a conversation between a few guys sitting at the bar. They were discussing drones which piqued my interest as I've been hearing more and more about drones in the news lately. The men discussing drones seemed like nice, normal guys out having a good time too, and none of them appeared drunk or belligerent. Then came a statement about drones that got me wondering how people really feel about this topic. One of the men stated that the airspace over his house was HIS airspace he owned it, and if he ever saw a drone flying overhead he'd take it out with his shotgun. The others agreed and then our drinks arrived and I turned my attention back to my friend. But after that night I really got to thinking about this whole drone issue and how it is seemingly seeping into our society more and more everyday. Should we be concerned about drones? What are the privacy, civil liberty, safety and ethical issues involved? What are the pros, what are the cons? I wanted to know more and what I discovered is there are many aspects to this issue. Definitely a myriad of opinions and my opinion is there is great need for scrutiny and common sense approaches to dealing with this newly infiltrating technology.


The What And How's of Drones

So what exactly is a drone. Not surprisingly there are already various other terms that are used when talking about drones. For the record they are also called unmanned aircraft systems (UAS); unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV); and remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). There are currently three categories of drones- public, civic, and hobby and they are also classified as to their purpose and use. Below are the six functional categories of drones (source: Wikipedia)

  • Target and decoy – providing ground and aerial gunnery a target that simulates an enemy aircraft or missile
  • Reconnaissance – providing battlefield intelligence
  • Combat – providing attack capability for high-risk missions
  • Logistics – UAVs specifically designed for cargo and logistics operation
  • Research and development – used to further develop UAV technologies to be integrated into field deployed UAV aircraft
  • Civil and Commercial UAVs – UAVs specifically designed for civil and commercial applications

Many drones are also equipped with GPS capability which allows the operator to easily navigate to a predetermined spot. But as we all know, technology builds upon itself and we may need to be concerned about the day when drones don't even need GPS to locate a person, place or thing and it morphs to autonomously navigate the skies. Didn't Nazi Germany use a similar system with the V-1 flying bomb that flew autonomously powered by pulsejet?

We've heard a lot lately about hobby drones in the news and I was curious as to what a decent drone would go for if one had the discretionary income to purchase one. After doing some research, I found that the price of a decent drone today is less than $1,200 and that is pretty decently equipped with high resolution photo and video capabilities. Now at the price I just stated, it's not unfeasible to assume that more and more people in the future may turn to these high end remote controlled aerial systems for fun and amusement. Perhaps it will just be a here today, gone tomorrow, trendy new thing to try but I suspect not.

The FAA- Its Purpose and Rule Making Authority

What agency regulates drone use in America today? That would be the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Let's take a look at one aspect of the FAA's recently published interim ruling for drone operation in the USA. Much to the chagrin of many, nothing within these rules covers privacy of citizens as the FAA is not the governing body to declare laws or rules over this issue. That being said, the FAA has put forth its rules governing drones with attempts to streamline the approval process for those commercial operators seeking authorization to operate in U.S. airspace. According to the FAA website, these commercial operators may now seek out Section 333 exemptions and I quote "Under the new policy, the FAA will grant a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) for flights at or below 200 feet to any UAS operator with a Section 333 exemption for aircraft that weigh less than 55 pounds, operate during daytime Visual Flight Rules (VFR) conditions, operate within visual line of sight (VLOS) of the pilots, and stay certain distances away from airports or heliports.

What does this mean for you and me as everyday citizens? Well, many may evaluate this as a good thing as it generally is a positive when rules are streamlined, but I'm sure others will see it as a possible concern. Why? The old rule was that each and every individual operator had to request approval each time they wished to operate. No longer. Blanket authorizations will now be the norm. Granted, these waivers will be only issued to commercial operators, but do we have any clue who these operators might be and if and when a regular hobbyist might suddenly be able to redefine themselves as a commercial operator? If hobbyists can find a way to make money off their hobby, you can pretty much bet they will attempt to apply as commercial operators.

So the FAA has covered the use of commercial drones under this interim ruling but they have not involved themselves with the use of "hobby" drones and that leaves much room for mishaps perhaps by reckless operators. Just as many people today recklessly operate an automobile, we can assume that over time, many might also recklessly operate a drone. Should the FAA become the overseer of all rules regarding the use of any and all unmanned aircraft systems much like the National Highway Transportation Board oversees ground transportation safety? Should it be that perhaps the FAA should form collaborations with the states to ensure there is no ambiguity in what is acceptable operating standards including for operators of hobby drones? We shall have to assume that the plan is to constantly be monitoring and adapting rules as the prevalence of drones multiplies. Much trust will be placed in this agency to look out for the greater good of our nation and to ensure that they are not pressured by special interest groups or private companies to grant overly lenient rulings.

Commercial Use of Drones-Beneficial to Society or Potential Public Nuisance

We cannot disregard the inherent value of drones in many areas of our world today. Some very beneficial and important civil aviation uses have been developed, including aerial surveying of crops, acrobatic aerial footage in filmmaking, search and rescue operations,inspecting power lines and pipelines, counting wildlife, delivering medical supplies to remote or otherwise inaccessible regions.Further uses include reconnaissance operations, border patrol missions, forest fire detection, surveillance, coordinating humanitarian aid, search & rescue missions,detection of illegal hunting,land surveying, fire and large-accident investigation, landslide measurement,illegal landfill detection,and crowd monitoring. Indeed, many positive events have arisen from the use of drones and they do have a place in our society to aid in various areas of public safety and locating missing persons. But there have also been abuses of these drones such as unauthorized surveillance use by civilians against other civilians such a the case in South Carolina where an animals rights group used a drone to film hunters hunting pigeons. The hunters shot the drone down.
(Source: Wikipedia)

In addition, There will soon be experimental granting of permits for commercial use of drones for use in commerce and delivery of goods. Amazon (AMZN) has applied for this experimental permit under the issuance of the stringent guidelines of the FAA. Much like the requirements for traditional airline pilots, the operators of such drone delivery programs must adhere to pilot certification rules. Though this program is in very early stages, Amazon is not the only company with interest in the developing drone delivery. Google (GOOG) has also expressed interest in developing their own program. Well, this should not really come as a surprise in today's day and age where so many desire rapid fire results and want what they want right now! It is interesting to note that when I researched the drone delivery guidelines, I was rather taken aback to learn that if and when approved for commercial delivery use, these drones will be able to fly at speeds up to 100 mph. That's pretty fast for a drone to be buzzing through our skies, don't you think? But wow, think about how quickly your pizza or new boots ordered online will arrive. Still, the potential for crowded airspace in years to come does leave one wondering about safety in the skies. Though many drones are equipped with sense and avoid technology, should we not ask if at some point in the future will our skies be filled with so many delivery drones that mid air collisions could be an issue.

My hope for drone delivery is focused more on how these unmanned aircraft systems could be used more for the greater good.. Now that more countries are using drones for warfare, my dream would be that the majority of drones are used by benevolent agencies that contribute to global balance, stability and security. Wouldn't it be great if organizations like Doctors without Borders could use drones as often as needed to deliver much needed vaccines and medicines to remote areas of the world. I'd love to see agricultural initiatives put in place that would deliver crop seeds to impoverished rural areas around the world so they could plant their own food and find a sense of well being and security by harvesting their own sustainable food crops. Don't you think in the end it would be far less of a burdensome cost to do that than wait until hunger and starvation sets in and then try to send in cargo planes with imported food aid?

Privacy And Civil Liberties Concerns

So we now know that drones can be purchased for $1,200 or so and that they are fully equipped to take both photos and videos. But who has the right to operate these drones for the mere purpose of snooping on the activity of others whether intentionally or unintentionally? The idea of someone having the ability to fly around a town and just take videos and photo of anything and everything they so desire has many people understandably concerned about their privacy and peace of mind. Should our quiet time at home ever be invaded by the possibility of low flying drones? What laws or rules need to be considered NOW before the potential breach of one's peace and security on their own private land or sanctity of their home is violated by total strangers? There are indeed already laws on the book to protect citizens from privacy violations but will the use of "commercial" drones create ambiguity in what constitutes a violation? If a news crew happens to be using drone to obtain news footage for that night's evening news and you happen to be in the shot, do you have any recourse to demand the footage not be shown?

Let's look at the use of drones by law enforcement agencies around the world and the implications of those uses. Drones may serve the greater good by allowing police to use them for surveillance of large crowds that may turn violent. Those same drones though may also be used to track and locate individuals without a warrant or may be used to disburse crowds by attaching tear gas receptacles that can be fired indiscriminately if a law enforcement judgment call warrants it. Perhaps the aim at the target is accurate, but perhaps not.

The issue of drones vs. privacy and civil liberties is going to be an ongoing and contentious issue. Many privacy advocates and civil liberty voices have already been out there making this issue a forefront of discussions. There is already one lawsuit pending against the FAA regarding drones and privacy. My hope is that these advocates do not let up and they keep this issue in front of government officials, state legislators, municipal bodies and the public.

Safety In Our Skies

We've all heard by now of the drone that flew over the White House gates and landed on the lawn before anyone even knew it was there. How did such a thing manage to occur and what does this mean for general safety of how and where these drones are operated? If someone can land a drone on the White House lawn in the middle of the night in a highly populated area like D.C., that is something that needs to be examined. How did this is operator manage to pull this off and what if any fines or judgments were levied against his/her reckless operation and obvious disregard for operating the aircraft in a city area? The White House incident is not the only incident where a drone has flown in an area where it shouldn't have. There have been recent cases as well where drones have come alarmingly close to civilian aircraft leading many pilots to express their concerns regarding the catastrophic damage a drone collision could cause to a plane carrying many human lives. And who would bear the responsibility for such pain and sorrow? Drones are not required to be registered to the owner but perhaps that is something that should be seriously considered so in the event of a mishap or illegal action, the drone has an identifiable registration number so it can be tracked back to its owner.

There is also danger and potential societal harm from drones being operated by less than scrupulous persons. Drones are capable of carrying "cargo". Depending on the size of the drone they can be configured to haul various things. What is the potential then for contraband or other illegals to be transported via drones? Could there come a day when drugs are flown in via drones and dropped into towns for distribution. The culprits would not be easily found without any way track the drone back to the owner and it certainly would make it easier to evade law enforcement by using this method. What other things could possibly be dropped into areas that could cause harm and damage to innocent humans, animals or structures?

I am sure there will be many questions, comments and concerns regarding the safety of drones in our skies. Let's all hope that there is a concerted effort by all stakeholders to adhere to the highest levels of public safety and ensure that there are swift and harsh consequences for anyone who does any harm to the peace, safety and security of our great nation.

What Is Yet To Be Revealed?

Will states and local municipalities have the authority to set their own rules? If so, will those rules usurp the federal government's or will the federal government attempt to preempt states down the road? Will drones become an everyday norm within a short time and how do we incorporate their presence into our skies without jeopardizing privacy, liberties and safety? Will the advancement of this technology be a beneficial aspect to our way of living or a potential public nuisance? Will laws be established to create national registration systems so all drones are able to be tracked back to their owners? Should people have the right to disable drones that are invading their personal airspace?

There is without a doubt a new world that lies ahead and drones may or may not be a major part of it. Today UPS and FED EX brings us our packages quickly, but in a few years, who knows, maybe drones will be the new norm for bringing us our purchased merchandise.

I suspect that this topic/issue will be in the news for some time and we will be hearing of some great things that drones are doing. I also suspect that we may also hear of near miss collisions with passenger aircraft, crashes in city neighborhoods and privacy violations.

I hope that the use of drones is more of a beneficial aspect to our society versus a detriment. Perhaps forward thinkers and believers of shared commonalities will unite and invest in the use of drones for global utilitarianism. Imagine how truly connected our societies, cultures and people of the world could be. How wonderful it would be to encourage the use of such technology for shared values and ideals and to know that the use of drones could be used not to destroy and kill, but to nurture and grow. I will dream that dream for I am a believer in the hearts of man who choose to put their efforts behind things that lift people up, rather than tear down.

Keep your eyes on the skies my friends, for you may look up one day to find a drone buzzing by. Let's hope whatever mission it is on, it is one of goodness and peace and on its way to serve society in some relevant way.

What do you think?

Should municipalities be seriously considering ordinances to disallow drones in their airspace without express written consent?

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