Domestic Drones in the Skies

By: Jeff Bartelli  

Earlier this year, congress passed – and the president signed – the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. This legislation covers many topics, but the one of most interest is the authorization for the domestic use of drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Debate and passage of this law received relatively little attention nationally and passed with little opposition from civil rights groups. The law directs the FAA to establish several locations throughout the U.S. for the testing of drone technologies. The law also directs the FAA to establish regulations by 2015 for the domestic use of drones. The implications are broad and staggering.

Rasmussen Reports has found that, though many Americans support the use of drones in the war on terror, a majority do not support the use of drones in domestic skies. Of course, there are many possible justifications for the use of drones. Such applications as the monitoring of fires, natural disasters, traffic, and crops come to mind. These uses seem benign enough. However, other uses are catching the attention of privacy advocates. The potential use of drones for the surveillance of criminals, illegal immigrants, and regular citizens faces little restriction. Previous Supreme Court rulings found that observation from an aircraft without a warrant does not violate the fourth amendment. Further, as drones will likely be cheaper to operate and maintain than helicopters, they are likely to rapidly grow in popularity with government agencies. Some estimates suggest that 30,000 drones could be in domestic skies within 20 years.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, two Brookings Institute analysts point out that the FAA does not have the core competency of writing privacy guidelines and will likely produce a document that nobody is pleased with. The establishment of acceptable guidelines for the domestic use of drones may be compromised by the millions of dollars lobbyists are spending to expand their use at home. The imbalance in perspectives this lobbying campaign represents may doom the final regulations drafted by the FAA to favor cheap and heavy production of domestic drones over privacy, not to mention safety.

The inclusion of tens of thousands of UAVs into the domestic airspace will potentially cause insurmountable logistic and safety problems. Drones are often plagued by problems of losing radio contact to their 'pilots', creating 'zombies' that may strike other aircraft or crash in populated areas. Further, drones can be much smaller than manned aircraft. This gives them the ability to enter airspace that is normally closed to aerial traffic. A bomb-laden drone could strike another aircraft or a structure, causing massive damage. In a cruel twist of irony, the terrorists who have been the target of drones in the War on Terror could use this technology against domestic targets.

Despite the benefits and pitfalls of domestic drone use, there is little doubt they will be coming to our skies. Strong and strict guidelines must be set for safety standards in the drones themselves, privacy standards for ALL people in the U.S., and strict regulation for how domestic drones can be used. The FAA is likely not qualified to draft adequate privacy regulations and thus this task should be passed on to another federal agency. Industry representatives and manufacturers have too much to gain from influencing safety standards and permissible uses and should not be permitted to heavily influence these regulations.

Though these seem like obvious steps, there is little hope that Congress will change its previous decisions. Thus, regulation of drones may be left to the states. Voter referenda to prohibit or regulate the use of drones in individual states may be the best way to secure privacy and ensure that unmanned aerial vehicles do not become a menace to society. Only time will tell if the drones in our skies will be a benefit, or if they will incur a greater cost than any of us realized.

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