Drones: Concerns and Challenges in their Usage

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You

By Paul RosenzweigThe George Washington University Law School

Drone technology is a powerful way of enhancing observational capabilities. While the drones are quite useful, it will be important to control their use through rules and regulations. Read about the different schools of thought to understand how drones have been affecting the public.

Photo of dozens of drones flying in the sky.
As they are cheap to operate, drones are vastly used in newsgathering operations. (Image: Andy Dean Photography/Shutterstock)

Use in Newsgathering and Retail Operations

Drones are much cheaper to operate than traffic helicopters. And when large demonstrations occur—like a march on Washington, or a riot, for example—they can provide a safe platform for news gathering.

One great application of the drone was a viral video produced by BBC on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The use of the drone to take the footage made the vision quite dramatic. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, a company began delivering beer to ice-fishermen out on the frozen northern lakes. And, in Singapore, a restaurant is using drones to deliver food and drinks to its customers.

Thus, big retailers and package-delivery services are interested in drones as distribution vehicles to reach customers.

How the Government Uses Drones

Just as news organizations might want to employ drones to watch a riot as it unfolds—or some other event, for that matter—the government wants drones to enhance its law enforcement and homeland security capabilities.

We can readily imagine some government uses that would be appropriate—say, SWAT team reconnaissance during a hostage situation; or in the same way that police helicopters are currently used in hot pursuit of a suspect. We can also imagine drones being useful for search and rescue missions.

This is a transcript from the video series The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Challenges in Usage

However, because of their surveillance capabilities, drones could impinge upon personal privacy and other civil liberties without proper legal guidelines and oversight.

Like swarming motor scooters on the ground, the proliferation of drones in our skies might also threaten aviation safety.

A drone flying in front of a house.
Without proper legal guidelines, drones could impinge upon personal privacy. (Image: ungvar/Shutterstock)

We can prohibit certain uses altogether, of course. Using a drone to case a house for burglary will still be a crime, just as burglary is now. And it’s a near certainty that the Peeping Tom laws will be modified if they need to be to include a prohibition on drones.

But hard questions will come from mixed uses—instances where data collection includes collateral collection of information and imagery.

Market predictions suggest that the manufacture and sale of drones will be a multi-billion dollar industry. Whether we like it or not, drones are here to stay. Given their utility, it seems far more likely that we will control drone use through rules and regulations rather than ban them.

Learn more about the psychological implications of observation.

Safety Regulations

First, there will be safety regulations. When first presented with the question, an administrative law judge said that absent written rules, the Federal Aviation Administration could not regulate drones, since the court viewed them as being no different than model aircraft. That led the FAA to issue its first commercial drone license in June 2014, to BP—the former British Petroleum—which had requested permission to use a 13-pound drone to survey its equipment and pipelines in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

At the same time it issued that first license, the FAA moved to restrict everyone else who didn’t have one.

Later, the FAA issued a draft of its proposed rules for hobbyists. They proposed that we can freely fly our small remote-controlled drones weighing less than 50 pounds so long as the drones stay away from airports, keep below 400 feet, and remain within the controller’s sight.

Anyone else, including news organizations and the package express companies and the retailers, would have to wait for new regulations or get a one-off exemption. Few exemptions have been issued, initially mostly for closed movie sets.

It’s possible that a final rule might require the operators of large drones to obtain airworthiness certificates, and fly them with licensed pilots. Those types of requirements would be quite expensive.

Learn more about the nature of privacy.

Restriction on Use of Drones

Privacy and civil liberties pose still more interesting issues and questions. On one side are some academic researchers who’ve been following the FAA debate. They contend that the FAA-imposed restrictions on drones will jeopardize their work and undermine basic education.

Meanwhile, California’s legislature adopted a law requiring police departments throughout the state to get a warrant from a judge in almost every situation where they might use a drone, except for emergencies like a hostage taking.

Official Portrait of Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor supports restrictions on the use of drones. (Image: Steve Petteway/Public domain)

However, it is not just the government we’re worried about. In Kentucky, a man used his gun to shoot down an $1800 drone that was hovering roughly 200 feet up over his neighbor’s house. He was arrested for criminal mischief and violating an FAA regulation against shooting down an aircraft. But the shooter said that the drone was invading his privacy and stalking him—laws that might apply when a drone with sensors hovers over your yard without your permission.

Recently, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor told a law school class:

There are drones flying over the air randomly that are recording everything that’s happening on what we consider to be our private property. I don’t like the fact that someone I don’t know can pick up, if they’re a private citizen, one of these drones and fly it over my property.

This shows both sides of the argument when it comes to the use of drones.

Common Questions about Concerns and Challenges in the Use of Drones

Q: How are drones useful for newsgathering operations?

Drones are used by newsgathering operations as they are much cheaper to operate than traffic helicopters. And when large demonstrations occur, they can provide a safe platform for news gathering.

Q: When did the FAA issue its first commercial drone license?

The FAA issued its first commercial drone license in June 2014, to BP, the former British Petroleum.

Q: What are the rules proposed by the FAA for drone hobbyists?

The FAA proposed that one can freely fly their small remote-controlled drones weighing less than 50 pounds so long as the drones stay away from airports, keep below 400 feet, and remain within the controller’s sight.

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