Droning on about Drones

Violet Martin

When Americans think of drones, many likely imagine equipment used by the American military for targeting terrorists in the desolate corners of Afghanistan and Pakistan; however, more uses for drones exist than the media would have the public believe. In recent months, the halls of Washington and state legislatures have been abuzz over whether or not civilians should have access to drone technology. Groups such as the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International support public access to drones, citing many beneficial uses for the devices in everyday life [1]. Others organizations, however, point to privacy and safety concerns, fearing that if placed in the wrong hands or even an over-eager police force, drones could prove quite devastating for the American public.


Drone use, whether by the military or civilians, is already a contentious topic within the international community. American leaders struggle with what constitutes an appropriate ‘terrorist-to-civilian’ kill ratio when deciding on whether or not to use a drone to bomb an area suspected of harboring terrorists. Even a popular American television series, Homeland, incorporates the issue into its storyline, helping to further the stereotypical image of drones [2]. Further investigation into drone technology, however, reveals a far greater variety of uses for drones than merely eliminating terrorists. In fact, other countries including Japan and Russia already use the technology for domestic purposes. After the Fukushima power plant explosion in 2011, safety inspectors used drones to assess the devastation without placing human lives in danger. In Russia, archaeologists fly drones over ancient burial grounds to collect topographical information which the researchers use to build 3-D models of the sites [3]. Within the US, certain police departments are allowed to use drones in order to monitor civilians who they reasonably suspect of engaging in criminal activity [4]. The Federal Aviation Administration, which is responsible for issuing permits for all aircraft, estimates that the number of drones used in domestic operations will reach 30,000 by 2020 [5]. Numbers such as these have some citizens alarmed and questioning whether drones flying over American backyards will only fuel the perception of a ‘Surveillance State’ [6]. Many citizens contend that if the police have access to these capabilities, other Americans should as well because otherwise, ‘who would watch the watchmen’?


Like most forms of technology, the use of civilian drones could greatly improve efficiency throughout the United States. From allowing utility companies to monitor their oil, water and gas pipelines to giving real-estate agents a way to show large properties to potential buyers without ever leaving the comforts of their office, commercial drones could greatly benefit many sectors within the American economy, not to mention potentially adding 23,000 jobs over the next 15 years [4]. Whatever the benefits are of widespread adoption of drones in the civilian sector, consideration of potential abuses needs to be carefully weighed. The issues of privacy and safety must be addressed through a combination of regulation and judicial review. Otherwise, the police, the utility company or perhaps even a nosy neighbor might be tempted to trample on an individual’s right of privacy. Furthermore, the Federal Aviation Administration must develop a highly-secure system for monitoring the unmanned aerial vehicles in order to prevent wrongdoers from hijacking the drones [5]. As with most technologies that eventually transition from military use into the civilian realm, commercial drones have great potential; however, the government’s decision to permit their general use by the American public must be approached with a high level of caution.



[1] http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/12/world/europe/civilian-drones-farnborough


[2] http://www.sho.com/sho/homeland/about




[4] http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/dec/10/homeland-security-increasingly-loaning-drones-to-l/


[5] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/Drones-are-Ready-for-Takeoff.html


[6] http://www.aclu.org/blog/technology-and-liberty/status-domestic-drone-legislation-states