The Drones Are Coming

Drones / South Park
Drones / South Park

There are expected to be 20 million unmanned aerial vehicles or drones in the U.S. by 2020, according to Lisa Ellman, who ran drone policy under the Obama administration. At SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas, Ellman painted a rosy portrait of a future filled with drones carrying out useful tasks like delivering packages, conducting routine crop dusting on agricultural fields, inspecting oil and gas pipelines, taking aerial photography, and even monitoring endangered wildlife. Meanwhile, the reality is many states and municipalities have restricted or outright banned these flying robots from going anywhere near people due to real safety and privacy concerns. A man in Kentucky recently shot down a drone hovering over his home, claiming the air space above his home was his property. This incident and others raise questions about how to regulate our air space for drones.

Ellman said the domestic market for drones would likely reach $13 billion by 2018 and $110 billion by 2025. But even with these huge projections, the U.S. may be falling behind other countries. “In Japan, for example, already 85 percent of crop dusting is done by drones.”

The U.S. is falling behind because Americans still have major concerns. Two examples of this can be seen in popular culture — In Modern Family, there is a hilarious moment when everyone tries to take down a drone hovering over the family yard, and in South Park, drones are put to particularly egregious use.

These satires of the dangers of these vehicles aren’t far off from Americans’ perceptions. Some 59 percent of Americans have concerns about privacy with drones, while 40 percent think they present a safety issue. To address these fears, Ellman thinks drone manufacturers need to do a “hearts and minds campaign — given they have a real PR problem” despite new regulations.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently released proposed rules for the hobby and commercial use of drones. Hobbyists must register their drones, which must be less than 55 pounds and fly less than 100 miles per hour. They can’t go higher than 500 feet and must be flown away from people and cities. “Drone operators must maintain a constant view of the drone at all times.” Furthermore, drone operators can’t fly within 5 miles of an airport.

Commercial operators must apply for a license. So far, there have been about 10,000 applications for licenses, with 4,000 granted. “Most of the early licenses went to Hollywood film producers.” Others have been granted to urban planning, landscape architecture, and other design firms to do aerial studies. Ellman called this approach a “band-aid before a final rule is released.”

Ellman said proposed rules severely limit the potential of drones, because they “need to be able to fly over congested areas and not be in visual sight lines” if we want them to “inspect oil and gas pipelines” or monitor the health of a forest.

She thinks one way to address these safety concerns is a new technology called geo-fencing, which enable operators and owners to pre-set GPS parameters that prevent drones from entering sensitive areas. Another set of new technologies could enable drones to better communicate with other flying vehicles and planes to avoid collisions.

But Ellman admitted getting over the safety concerns — a drone crashing into an airplane or a person — will be hard work. “There have been near misses with drones and aircraft caused by some irresponsible pilots.” For her, the answer is another “public campaign,” and “some enforcement to make examples of these bad actors.”

And privacy remains an issue. “Our homes are our castles and we need to have control over our personal life. There is a fear that drones could spy on us in our backyards.” And so a “privacy campaign is needed,” more than new laws and ordinances. Existing privacy laws already cover the action of any potential “creep,” and additional laws banning drones are really just “playing into people’s fears.” However, many states and cities disagree with her: “In 2015, there were 168 pieces of drone legislation. And in 2016, 33 states considered new rules, while 22 cities passed ordinances.”

Drones raise questions about airspace ownership as well. Our property rights extend above our home, but “only to a certain point.” Under American law, “we own the air rights above our property up to 83 feet, but not past 400 feet. What about the space in between?” The drone shot down by that man in Kentucky was flying 200 feet over his property. “Is that private or public air space? It’s a fascinating question.”

Ellman’s focus was entirely on the interaction of drones with people — what was missing from her analysis was drones’ potential impact on nature. How will drones impact wildlife, like migrating birds? Already, the police in Amsterdam, Netherlands, have trained eagles to take down illegal drones. While an eagle may likely be able to beat any good-sized drone, can other birds defend themselves? The noise from swarms of drones, which Amazon would like to see corralled into airborne highways, could also negatively impact all sorts of wildlife. More research is needed before millions of these are unleashed on our remaining natural world.

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