Enter The Drones – fSo from the looks of it it’s not so much a question of if, but rather when, private and commercial pilots will be sharing the American skies with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones. The FAA has at least as early as 1991 been collecting information and requests from industry and Congress alike regarding implementing these systems. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 requires that the FAA implement the necessary procedures to put drones to share our skies by 2015, although it looks like they’re running into little delays here and there (perhaps not so strange for a government agency).
So, drones, are they a good thing or a bad thing? Well, I say both. The possible civilian uses are exciting. I was listening to people sound off on the issue in a Google hangout (a little virtual town meeting on pretty much anything). One person who influenced me the most was a fire chief talking about its department’s use of a drone to pinpoint hotspots in a dangerous wildfire. He said that he would not have been able to get the fire under control nearly as effectively without it, since the area was too dangerous for helicopters and too distant for conventional aircraft. Industries of all stripes lined up with their favorite uses, ranging anywhere from monitoring oil pipelines to crops to real estate professionals who want the coolest video ever for the neighborhood they’re showing. The technology is impressive (and undoubtedly has multiple commercial uses). So, there is no doubt there are some serious potential benefits and a fun, technological “gee whiz” factor.
Now the part that concerns me a bit. Among the biggest proponents, and biggest customers, for drones are federal and state law enforcement agencies, many of whom already have them, even smaller bodies like my own hometown Collier County Sheriff’s Department. Now I am a law and order guy but in a Constitutional democracy we have the obligation to ask, and the right to know, the types of policing operations would require mass, continuous and detailed surveillance? There is no doubt that certain operations would benefit tremendously from this type of technology, and having drones in high-stakes scenarios could save officers’ lives. The problem is that these machines are not like manned aircraft. They don’t get tired, they can see almost anything, and they can watch over people 24/7, whether we like it or not. We need to be honest with ourselves about human nature: isn’t a drone is just too cool a toy to sit underneath the government tree? I vaguely recall a case from law school in which the court threw out evidence collected from a marijuana grow house because the police used electronic surveillance equipment to “look” through the grow house walls without a warrant. So, maybe the drones will be looking for terrorists, maybe for pot, but what about a politically unpopular land-use or political gathering? Food for thought.
In any case drones are already a reality in our US skies. It is essential that the FAA continue to develop the appropriate regulatory and operational framework with the Constitution in mind. From a technological standpoint, too, we also need to make dern sure we don’t have Predators smashing into cargo ships full of Spongebob Squarepants paraphernalia or shooting down 172s. It sounds funny but computers can and do make mistakes, and these would be big mistakes. There must be some sort of civilian oversight of law enforcement use of the drones, and, in my view, military missions are probably prohibited under the Constitution. Given that there are some years of implementation to come it’s worth having a look at the issue and the current debate.