Droning on at home and abroad

On Thursday, June 11, the Project for the 21st Century hosted The Future of Drones with panelists Erik Lin-Greenberg, former US Air Force Officer and PhD candidate at Columbia University, and Lisa Ellman, Counsel for McKenna Long and Aldridge LLP and member of the firm’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Practice Group and Public Policy and Regulatory Affairs practice. The event was moderated by Ryan Hagemann, Civil Liberties Policy Analyst at the Niskanen Center and adjunct fellow at TechFreedom, specializing in robotics and automation.

Lin-Greenberg clarified the commonly misunderstood concept of drones. These aircraft are otherwise known as remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) whose pilot undergoes the same training as a pilot flying a manned aircraft. Often, large military aircrews operate a drone, as opposed to one person operating it. Furthermore, drone operations fall under two broad categories—Title 10 missions for military use and Title 50 missions for covert action (not necessarily flown by the military crew).

The use of drones today, however, is moving in a completely uncharted direction. Ellman explained there is a growing field of commercial drone operations in which companies use drones for deliveries, crop dusting, providing internet service and taking aerial photos of properties for sale. Currently, the commercial use of drones is illegal in the US. The only way one can circumvent the law is through special permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). However, drones for recreational purposes are legal, i.e. the law permits a hobbyist to fly drones in an open air space.

Other countries are ahead of the US in the commercial use of drones, including pizza delivery in England and crop dusting in Japan. The data on the safety of commercial drones is however still scant, which makes policy formulation difficult.  The US has the most complex airspace in the world. Other countries have a lot more free airspace. The FAA must regulate “as if drones might fall from the sky” because its objective is to prevent accidents.

The potential commercial and widespread use of drones also introduces questions on privacy. Companies often want to use drones but don’t want others’ drones to spy on them. The critics’ response to this argument is that other technology, such as satellites and helicopters, can already do what commercial drones will do. This begs the question of whether the US must formulate drone-specific rules or can utilize existing general privacy rules.

Lin-Greenberg noted that drones still do not have the payload of manned aircraft. Nevertheless, drones’ tactical effectiveness in minimizing collateral damage could mean that RPA use will continue to increase. The State Department has also relaxed rules on RPA exports, which will limit the clientele that buys Russian and Chinese drones and will allow the US to leverage more influence on foreign buyers, she suggested.

The future of drones remains uncertain, but in order to sustain progress, it is imperative policymakers maintain pace with technology . Industries should begin moving towards commercial drone use, while safety and privacy issues continue to inform the policymaking process.

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