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Editorial: Drones and our skies

The drones are here. The same technology that powers the unmanned fliers sniping America’s enemies — as well as civilians — is already dotting the nation’s skies. Expect more domestic drones operating in the U.S. — and soon.

While drones are best known for the attacks carried out in Pakistan and Yemen, there are many practical advantages to cheap, crew-less aviation. They could be deployed in wilderness search-and-rescue missions, spray vast crop fields or make deliveries. Drones are already being used by NASA to gather atmospheric data, they patrol parts of the U.S.-Mexico border and in Costa Rica are deployed to get a unique look at volcanoes.

But there are worrisome applications of domestic drones, too: police, FBI and CIA surveillance, flight or weapons errors and the ability to kill or wound from above.

While questions over privacy, safety and morality loom, drones are expected to become a $113 billion international business in the next decade. In the U.S., a dozen police departments are already using drones for day-to-day work. The first time a drone was used to make an arrest in the U.S. came in 2011. A North Dakota police department used a drone to scan a vast field where three alleged criminals had fled. The drone was able to find the men and detect that they were unarmed.

And by 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration expects to integrate the flight of drones into the nation’s airspace. Before this, the FAA will pick six communities to test how well domestic drones perform in different environments and to study the impact they have on air traffic patterns.

Rules that will determine how drones are built, what information they can gather and who owns that data are still being shaped. Politicians in Virginia and Maine are seeking to limit the use of domestic drones. Others are all for them. In Congress, the 60-member Unmanned Systems Caucus seeks to spread awareness and create support for domestic drones.

Drone technology could change society. Before regulations are ratified, citizens should learn about what’s ahead, decide what they think of it and let their representatives in Congress know.

And we encourage members of Congress, when crafting domestic-drone laws, to consider to what degree the Fourth Amendment’s ban on illegal search and seizure applies to drone surveillance — and to err on the side of protecting privacy. Not to sound paranoid, but total surveillance of a city is possible. In the last few years the U.S. was in Iraq, Baghdad was on 24/7 drone surveillance. The coverage was so complete that by looking through video footage, it was possible to trace a truck-bomb back to where it was loaded with explosives, according to an article in the March National Geographic headlined “The drones come home.”

This technology carries many risks. Consider what would happen if domestic drones, once readily available, are purchased by people seeking to do harm. This situation almost played out in the U.S. in November, when a Massachusetts man was sentenced to serve 17 years in jail after he was found guilty of planning to attack the Pentagon with C-4-rigged explosives delivered via drone.

In addition to surveillance and data regulations, Congress must set performance standards for drones.

Many question whether the technology has advanced to the point where unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs (the term for drone preferred by advocates) can be widely used in domestic situations. A report last year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office cited drones for failing to have sense-and-avoid technology, equipment that would allow a drone to pick up on an approaching object, like a passenger plane, and move to avoid a collision. The GPS navigation systems most drones use is also far from infallible. GPS can be stymied by buildings and trees. In 2011, the Iranian government claims to have disrupted the GPS navigation of a U.S. drone causing it to crash.

Drone technology has the potential to benefit the U.S. in life- and money-saving ways, but this advance should not go unchecked. It would be a tragedy if, when looking into the sky, you have to wonder if someone is looking back at you.

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