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August 20, 2015

A truck can be a great thing – an incredible machine to expedite the transportation of goods across the nation’s roads, delivering shipments of food, construction materials, clothing and other necessities day and night to any location; all positive uses. However, in the hands of someone with malicious intent, a truck can be a weapon wired with hidden remote-controlled explosives, or can be driven into a crowd of innocent pedestrians. Much like any technological invention – whether it be a computer system, a gun, or a 3D printer – there are both good and potentially bad possibilities and concerns. Drones are no different. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have amazing capabilities, and will have positive value to us as we move into the future. However, drone flights also raise many issues that need to be addressed in the areas of public safety, privacy and civil liberties. Where are we now – and where are we going?


Drone Technology for Good Use

The use of drones is still at an infancy stage, but as the current abilities and limitations are evaluated, and creative ideas generated, this technology will be incorporated for quality of life improvements, security, anti-crime, and emergency situations. And more. There is now a smart phone app to alert an aerial drone, which coordinates with local law enforcement, upon receiving the emergency signal triggered from the phone panic button. It sends GPS information for an immediate drone response, and the drone is equipped with a speaker generated warning system that will broadcast until the authorities arrive at the scene. Mounted cameras transmit and record a live feed of the incident for documentation. Currently, this app is being implemented on college campuses, medical facilities, and other self-contained complexes to heighten security and create a deterrent to crime. Other promising emergency response UAV uses are for search and rescue, because drones are able to patrol large areas of water and, with infra-red and radar systems, can locate live bodies in plane crashes, boating accidents, hiking incidents, and swimmer mishaps. 

Drones can also navigate and fly through burning buildings and crawl around warehouses to identify pockets of people being sought. In the utility industry, they can perform inspections above or below ground to identify ruptured gas lines and other issues. In many cases, micro-drones can be more efficient than human inspectors and become pipeline crawlers, accessing the capillary levels of underground utility systems. As drone use expands, the role of security guards is certainly predicted to change, allowing them instead refocus to the monitoring, control, and response aspects of surveillance. UAV’s can constantly scan for suspicious items like water contamination and relay station tampering, because they have the capability to compare their live camera and audio view against what they are supposed to be seeing. 

Agriculture is another prime area for more and more drone incorporation. Farms can be monitored from above their fields, and view growth, potential issues, and quality of the crops. Information that would take days to acquire can be received in minutes and transmitted directly to a smart phone or pad device. Pesticide usage can be regulated as needed, and in many cases, diminish the need for blanket spraying of non-problem areas. Irrigation systems can pinpoint the exact amount of water needed in each area of the farmland. Livestock farms can also be monitored in real time – grazing animals, stray incidents, illness, peculiarities, predators and any other security issues will all be visible from the air.


Innovation Increases as Drone Cost Lowers

The innovative use of drones will span from efficient merchandise delivery to capturing spectacular aerial views of events, concerts, weddings and other activities of interest on the ground. Movie go-ers are already commenting about their reaction to shots where a close up seamlessly pulls away to a view from high above the action. Many businesses, organizations and individuals will be seeking ways to incorporate this new technology into what they do. Hobbyist use will also be on the rise. There is one certainty, and that is when we look at the future sky – seeing drones navigating by or hovering above us will be commonplace, and not unexpected. The price of drone operation? A typical popular drone can be purchased on sites like Amazon for – depending on the features – a range of 300 to 5, 000 dollars. The cost of drone operation at a professional level, however, is NOT just the price of buying the actual drone; new regulations will require pilot registration, and possibly a flight medical evaluation. In addition, there is an operation cost of approximately 2, 000 dollars per day for two pilots, along with maintenance and other use-related expenses.


Drone Technology for Bad Use

Unauthorized surveillance and delivery of illegal items; these are just some of the current concerns – and there will be more as the technology advances even further. The DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) is concerned because UAVs greatly increase a cartel’s ability to night drop drugs across the border with these quiet copters, especially when using advanced drones that can take off with a quad rotor and switch to fixed wing for efficient distant flying. Contraband can also be distributed over prison and other ‘secure’ walls or barriers. Having big brother constantly watching – with such an extensive view - is also a new drone capability concern. There are now video cameras and pedestrian monitoring on almost every city block, at convenience stores, gas stations, mall interiors, and parking facilities. Start adding UAVs into the mix, and there will be instant surveillance available to track and gain an overview of any situation as it unfolds. Precautionary monitoring of areas can be ongoing from up above, with drone navigation and positioning right into spots that are logistically challenging when attempting to access by conventional means. People, cars, boats, movement, changes, similarities – is all data that can be processed in real time by those who monitor the drone feed, and entered directly into the coordinated computer systems that receive the transmission of the drone generated information.


Drone Terrorist Attacks

In addition, there are so many ways that drones can be used, as either a supportive component or epicenter of terrorist attacks on innocent people, government officials, or infrastructure systems. Yes, in many situations a drone can be shot out of the sky relatively easily – even with law enforcement hand guns – or rendered ineffective by other means, but the immediacy of launch in very close proximity to the their intended terrorist target is concerning. By the time a threat is definitively identified – the concern is that it may be too late to disrupt or counter the situation already in progress. Multiple simultaneous and coordinated drone attacks increase the complexity of the necessary response. In a hypothetical situation, even a shot down drone could have been programed to detonate explosives or distribute a payload of harmful material into the environment surrounding it. Or the crash of a 55 pound object in and of itself can be destructive and dangerous. Messaging emanating from the Islamic State suggests drone attacks are opportunities for lone-wolf operators. The intelligence point, at which a terrorist attack can best be identified and neutralized, is during their surveillance and information gathering phase – that’s when the participants are exposed most. The actual attack can happen much later, past the point when it is more easily preventable.


Minimizing the Negative Potential of Drone Use

Drone rules and regulations in the United States are in the early stages of defining the legal boundaries of UAV use; this is an international issue as well. There are currently 2, 342 sanctioned drone pilots / operators in the world; 2, 000 of them are in Japan! Estimates are for tremendous growth in the UAV-related industry, with projection numbers of over 89 billion dollars, and 75 thousand drone operators within the next five years. Legislation will input the shape of use parameters. To date, there have only been a handful of drone related cases that have been ruled upon. There will certainly be more on the horizon. The first trial in the US where a drone operator was accused of unlawful surveillance just occurred in June, 2015. Eric Schneider, the Kingston, New York based attorney who won the case said that “what was really on trial was fears about this new technology and concerns over privacy.” Regulations for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are not yet as definitive as they are expected to be in the future, and state legislatures are debating this issue currently. According to the NCSL (National Conference of State Legislation), 26 states now have laws related to UAS operation, and 6 additional ones have resolutions recently adopted. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) has a proposed UAS rulemaking that was issued on February 15, 2015. In this proposal, the requirements for operation state that a UAS:

  • Must weigh less than 55 pounds.
  • May only operate during standard daylight hours and within visual sight.
  • Must fly no higher than 500 feet and go no faster than 100 mph.
  • Must be operated by a person at least 17 years or older that has passed a FAA knowledge test.
  • Must be registered, but does not require an airworthiness certification. The FAA also indicated that it was also considering issuing separate regulations for UAS weighing less than 4.4 pounds. (micro-drones)

The FAA also has allowed a number of exemptions in advance of the finalization of these rules; this includes Amazon who is proactive to incorporate drones in their company’s merchandise delivery. In addition, there are some limitations included to minimize risk to people, property and other aircraft:

  • A small UAS operator must always see and avoid manned aircraft. If there is a risk of collision, the UAS operator must be the first to maneuver away.
  • The operator must discontinue the flight when continuing would pose a hazard to other aircraft, people or property.
  • A small UAS operator must assess weather conditions, airspace restrictions and the location of people to lessen risks if he or she loses control of the UAS.
  • A small UAS may not fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight.
  • Flights should be limited to 500 feet altitude and no faster than 100 mph.
  • Operators must stay out of airport flight paths and restricted airspace areas, and obey any FAA Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs).

Objects will not be allowed to be dropped from a UAS, and it is up to the operator to ensure that the aircraft is safe and fully functional. This will include communication link checks for the control system. In the separate but related area of privacy and civil rights and liberties, there has been a Presidential Memorandum issued regarding Federal use of a UAS, and this directs the start of a multi-stakeholder process anticipated to input and shape a framework in these yet to be defined areas.


The Near Future of Drones

Rules and regulations are currently being put forward, and we should expect both legislation and court rulings to shape the future of drone use. There will, of course, be another set of standards for government flown drones, and military use is again a whole separate entity. Military drone surveillance and weaponry are in an entirely different league of technology with multi-million dollar systems, and not available to the public. Terrorist control of a military drone, however, is a potential risk that the armed forces and government must prevent at all cost. The amount of drones in the sky will certainly increase. Hobbyists will discover more and more the fun of flying them and experiencing the camera view transmitted back from hundreds of feet above. There is be an abundance of services that revolve around drone flights, and pilots/operators will be in demand. 

Colleges and universities are now offering drone piloting programs and degrees, and the education and training of operators is projected to increase tremendously. Law enforcement around the country will incorporate drones into their normal activities, and designers and manufactures will create more advanced product specifically for police forces and protective agencies. A subindustry of drone consultants, support teams and repair mechanics will flourish. Public safety and civil liberties will continue to be discussed and parameters of operation will be defined with more and more clarity. Security and protective firms have already incorporated drone technology into their work when deemed appropriate, and more uses will be developed and implemented as time moves forward. Organizations and corporations can seek consultation from such agencies related to the security and protection of their physical structures, vehicles, and personnel. Drones will affect everyone’s quality of life in both positive and negative ways. One thing is certain, there will be drones in our future, and the novelty of seeing them will dissipate as they become more commonplace and expected. There will be both positive and negatives resulting from drone technology, and the present uncertainty will change to clarity as drone use expands and flies into the future.

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