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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

In Defense of Private Drones

Private drone with camera
Wonkblog's Timothy Lee has an interesting piece up on the use of commercial drones and states' efforts to come to grips with them. In case you're not familiar with them, these aren't the rather big pilotless aircraft used so controversially by the military. Instead, these are small aircraft like the remote-controlled model planes we're all familiar with -- except they don't look like models of anything. They're generally helicopter-like, with several rotors for increased stability. And, despite the darker associations the word "drone" carries with it, they're extremely useful.

...Because drones are cheap, light and don’t require a pilot, they can be put in the air for a fraction of the cost of a traditional airplane. That has created new opportunities for everyone from real estate firms to oil and gas companies to PETA  – anyone, in fact, who might have use for an eye-in-the-sky, but doesn’t have the money to hire a pilot and a plane. But the dawning era of cheap, private surveillance is leading a lot of states to ask how these private drones should be regulated.

Animal rights groups, for example, have announced plans to use drones to monitor farms for cruelty to animals. Some farmers are upset about the potential invasion of their privacy. So earlier this year, the Idaho legislature passed a drone privacy bill that specifically requires a farmer or rancher’s permission before a “farm, dairy, ranch or other agricultural industry” can be monitored with an unmanned aerial vehicle.

Does such a prohibition violate the First Amendment rights of animal rights advocates? There’s a good chance the answer is “yes,” but the courts have yet to consider the question.
The most obvious use of a private drone is aerial photography. At least, it's obvious to me. And this sort of thing actually isn't all that new. People use kites for the same purpose -- and have for almost as long as photography has existed.


Everyone talks about the downside of private drones, so let's consider the other perspective. For the most part, laws that already protect privacy from prying eyes would protect you from drones. For example, a peeping Tom isn't going to get off on the technicality that he was window-peeping at one remove through the lens of a drone. It's the act that's the crime, not the method. It's understandable that a family farm wouldn't want drones buzzing around staring at them and a balance must be found between First Amendment freedoms and the right to privacy. But like aerial photography, that conundrum existed before drones came along. It's just that PETA couldn't afford to hire helicopters to do the same thing. The only thing that's really changed is the expense. PETA would've been flying around farms with telephoto lenses years ago -- if they had Greenpeace-level funding.

And that's where we really start to get into the benefit for everyone. The expense of using conventional aircraft isn't just in the cost of the machine, but in the cost of the fuel. Small, lightweight, and battery-operated, a drone could conceivably operate with a neutral carbon footprint. And since they're small, they're launched on site, instead of flown in from an airstrip -- in some cases hundreds of miles away. Of the two options when you might need an "eye in the sky," the drone is much greener than conventional aircraft. It won't be much use in surveying tremendous areas of land, but if you want a photo of the farm you're selling, it's pretty much perfect.

As I say, I'm not proposing that we just let people with drones do whatever the hell they want. What I'm saying is that maybe we should wait to see what the problems actually are, instead of writing laws based on speculation that might regulate this technology out of existence. There's a lot of potential for abuse in private drones -- but there's a lot of potential for abuse in anything.

We have to be sure that, in our fear of that potential, we don't overlook the sizeable potential for real benefit.


[photo by FaceMePLS]

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