Why we shouldn’t fear commercial drones

by on March 11, 2013 · 5 comments

Mention the word “drone” to the average American today and the mental image it will conjure is likely to be of a flying robot weapon being wielded by a practically unaccountable executive. That’s why Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster to draw attention to the administration opaque targeting process was important. I’m afraid, though, that Americans will end up seeing drones only in this negative light. In reality, the thousands of drones that will populate our skies before the end of the decade will be more like this one:

Over at Reason.com today I try to draw the distinction between killbots and TacoCopters, and I make the case we can’t let our legitimate fears of police surveillance and unaccountable assassinations keep us from the benefits of commercial drones.

Requiring that police get a warrant before engaging in surveillance is a no-brainer. But there is a danger that fear of governmental abuse of drones might result in the public demanding—or at least politicians hearing them ask for—precautionary restrictions on personal and commercial uses as well. For example, a bill being considered in New Hampshire would make all aerial photography illegal. And a bill recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives would make it a crime to use a private drone to photograph someone “in a manner that is highly offensive to a reasonable person … engaging in a personal or familial activity under circumstances in which the individual had a reasonable expectation of privacy”—a somewhat convoluted standard.

Restrictions on private drones may indeed be necessary some day, as the impending explosion of drone activity will no doubt disrupt our current social patterns. But before deciding on these restrictions, shouldn’t legislators and regulators wait until we have flying around more than a tiny fraction of the thousands of domestic drones the FAA estimates will be active this decade?

If officials don’t wait, they are bound to set the wrong rules since they will have no real data and only their imaginations to go on. It’s quite possible that existing privacy and liability laws will adequately handle most future conflicts. It’s also likely social norms will evolve and adapt to a world replete with robots.

You can read the whole article here.

  • Josh

    I agree with your stance that we should be more open to the use of commercial drones–it’s foolish to rush in without a good understanding of the overall effect of these contraptions in the sky. That being said, I wonder about the social implications of this drone implementation. True, we may one day adjust our laws to robots and get used to them, but I wonder if some sort of “Panopticon” situation might arise before that point. With a sizable number of drones in the sky there is legitimate fear of surveillance, as you mention. Yet, even if we weren’t actually being watched by these machines the social mindset might–at least initially–shift and assume surveillance regardless. Until the point at which we get used to them, these drones–no matter how domestic–could possibly influence our behavior outside of places we deem fully private. I think it’s important to make sure that these machines don’t dictate our lives that much, even if there is no intention to do so on the part of the operator.

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