The Future of Drones
The sky could soon be full of thousands of pilotless drones making deliveries, surveying property, even measuring air quality. Is that a good thing?
By Jeremy Craig
In July, a small drone flew 35 miles across a stretch of the Appalachian Mountains to deliver medical supplies to a remote clinic in Wise County, Va. Local residents sometimes live hours away from the closest doctor or dentist, and the temporary clinic provides free care to thousands of patients at the county fairgrounds each year.
“The terrain is not as conducive to having ‘as-needed’ deliveries of medical supplies,” said Richard Welke, director of the Center for Process Innovation at Georgia State’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business. “You have to stock up for a month, and you don’t know who will show up at your door. Sometimes you make the wrong guess as to what you need.”
The supply drop was the first successful drone delivery approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Many hope it’s a harbinger of more widespread use of drones for humanitarian missions, such as delivering goods to disaster zones or supporting search and rescue operations.
Amazon, for one, expects these sorts of pilotless deliveries to be commonplace in the coming years. The company recently won approval to test its Prime Air service, in which drones would carry packages right to customers’ doorsteps.
But some see more sinister possibilities.
Who’s regulating this?
Amazon, which recently proposed a 200-foot space of air for its autonomous drones at a NASA convention, is still hamstrung by FAA regulations. The FAA regulates all American airspace, including heights well below where airplanes fly.
For safety’s sake, the agency restricts airspace around government facilities, as well as “national security events,” such as Pope Francis’ recent visit.
The FAA’s regulatory authority technically extends to hobbyist drones—often controlled through a smartphone—which are used every day to take aerial photos of cities and parks. They’ve also been getting local TV coverage for near misses with airliners, and they were lampooned on the show “South Park” for the very real concern of voyeurism by tech-savvy peeping toms. With one million drones predicted to be sold this Christmas, the FAA is expecting more headaches, and the agency is not necessarily in the business of enforcing regulations against every private citizen.
Those headaches include well-publicized invasions of privacy, such as an incident in Kentucky when a hobbyist drone operator flew the device over the house of a man whose 16-year-old daughter was sunbathing.
(The father promptly shot down the drone, and was arrested on state charges of wanton endangerment and criminal mischief.)
“The FAA is more concerned about safety and integrating these drones with all of the other air traffic that they’re responsible for, or keeping them away from certain air traffic they’re responsible for,” said Caren Morrison, associate professor at Georgia State’s College of Law. “Their purviews are much broader.”
With outrage over privacy invasions by hobbyist drone owners, state legislatures have passed laws to address particular violations.
The problem, Morrison said, is that if a state law is passed as a knee-jerk response without taking federal regulations and laws into account, states could come into conflict with the feds.
For example, Tennessee amended its definition of criminal trespass to include anyone flying a drone over private land without permission in airspace “not regulated” by the FAA, which technically regulates all airspace from the ground up.
Existing state laws against criminal trespass can be used for violations of privacy committed with hobbyist drones, Morrison said.
And anyone can use noflyzone.org to create their own personal restricted airspace over their property, preventing hobbyist drone operators from flying into that space—theoretically.
Watch a test flight of one of Amazon’s Prime Air delivery drones. (Video: Amazon)
A tight leash on innovation
But for every hobbyist drone flying astray, there are a multitude of potential business and research opportunities for unmanned aircrafts, from farmers keeping an eye on their crops to scientists tracking sea lions. The commercial market for drones is expected to grow to $4.8 billion in the next five years, according to Winter Green Research.
In real estate, drones could prove useful in making photography of properties for sale much cheaper, said Karen Gibler, associate professor of real estate in the Georgia State Robinson College of Business.
“There’s even the idea of giving someone an aerial view of a property [with a drone] when an agent is marketing it, rather than hiring an aerial photographer with a helicopter,” she said.
And just as public utilities could use drones to better evaluate power lines and other infrastructure, drones could make it easier for checking out any property issues that could hold up sales.
But the FAA is keeping a tight leash on them. Amazon had to apply for what’s called a “Section 333” exemption from the FAA just to test the technology. Because the government is still sorting out how to balance safety, privacy and the economic benefits of commercial drone use, companies that want to use drones have found themselves trapped in red tape.
“The broad stroke answer is that all regulations inhibit innovation,” said Welke from the Center for Process Innovation. “But it’s always about striking a balance. We will never have a regulation-free development for very long, because inevitably someone will misuse that innovation or tool.”
The all-seeing eye
Morrison, the law professor, has another big concern. And it’s not about hobbyist or business drones.
What we should be much more worried about, she said, is the use of drones for government surveillance.
Security cameras monitored by law enforcement are everywhere. But they’re attached to poles, and are harder to move. Security cameras on highly maneuverable, airborne drones—some no larger than a hummingbird—are a more disconcerting notion.
“I’m not sure that the public is as outraged about hobbyist drones as they are about government drones,” Morrison said. “I think most people are more concerned about the Orwellian, all-seeing government.”
Just as the commercial market for drones is expected to grow significantly in the next two decades, the number of drones owned by federal, state and local governments will also grow from a few hundred now to nearly 10,000 in 2035 for the federal government alone, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported.
Technological advances, such as improvements in software allowing drones to be quasi-autonomous and in hardware to provide large amounts of power to allow a drone to fly for years, could make “all-seeing eyes” hovering over American cities common.
“The Solar Eagle drone can stay aloft for five continuous years,” Morrison said. “It just gives a limitless surveillance capacity to the government.”
And this could all be perfectly legal.
As of now, there are few legal limits on the surveillance law enforcement can conduct in public spaces. The U.S. Supreme Court, under what’s called the “open fields” doctrine, has held that there is no expectation of privacy in outdoor areas not immediately close to a home, even on private property, Morrison said.
“So long as drones are deployed in a way so as not to detect any information happening inside private residences, several strands of the Supreme Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence would seem to classify such surveillance as ‘not a search,’” she wrote in the Journal of Civil Rights and Economic Development.
In the meantime
As drone use evolves, the FAA wants to give ordinary hobbyists a way to have fun and avoid security and privacy headaches.
The agency is working on a new smartphone app, called B4UFLY, to help amateurs navigate the air safely. It includes a status indicator telling an operator if it’s OK to fly in their current location and a planning function for hobbyists to map out future flights.
Want to fly your own drone? The FAA offers this advice:
- Take lessons to learn to fly a drone safely.
- Contact the airport or air traffic control tower when flying within five miles of an airport.
- Don’t fly near manned aircraft.
- Don’t fly beyond your line of sight.
- Don’t fly your aircraft for payment or commercial purposes.
ART DIRECTION/DESIGN: BASIL ISKANDRIAN & WILLIAM DAVIS
PORTRAITS: STEVEN THACKSTON