Ready or not, unmanned drones may soon be a staple of American life

Questions swirl around privacy, safety concerns

If you're worried about companies like Facebook and Google violating your privacy, just wait until you have unmanned aerial drones flying around your house.

Background: What the drone invasion looks like

More: FAA wants public feedback on unmanned aircraft test sites

While this may sound like some far-fetched futuristic scenario, it's actually something that could become a reality by 2015. That's because an aviation bill signed into law by President Obama earlier this year will allow domestic use of "unmanned aircraft systems" by both the government and private citizens and businesses for the first time. In other words, if the Federal Aviation Administration meets its deadline for integrating unmanned drones into national airspace, we could see unmanned aircraft flying around our neighborhoods in just three years' time.

Naturally, this raises some significant privacy and safety concerns, which is why the Brookings Institute this week held a discussion panel to debate the implications that domestic drones will have for private citizens. Although there was certainly disagreement on the panel, all four participants basically believed that unmanned drones were a potentially useful technology for domestic use as long as the government put in the proper restrictions on their use by both the public and private sector.

Just what those restrictions will be, however, is certainly still up for debate. Paul Rosenzweig, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the founder of Red Branch Consulting PLLC, said that drones had plenty of natural applications for law enforcement, particularly when it comes to surveillance of the U.S.-Mexico border where Border Patrol agents have difficulty efficiently monitoring thousands of miles of space. However, he also acknowledged that law enforcement agencies needed to be given strict limitations on how they can use drones. For instance, he said that doing surveillance along the border would not give law enforcement the right to deploy surveillance on local Tea Party of ACLU chapters that happened to be meeting in the area.

"Without developing an oversight mechanism to prevent misuse we won't ever get to see the beneficial uses of drones," he said.

Catherine Crump, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, expressed concerns about law enforcement gaining access to unmanned drones if private citizens weren't given the same type of access. She also said she was alarmed at how many law enforcement officials she's talked with were interested in attaching non-lethal weapons such as tear gas canisters to drones and using them for crowd control.

"I always thought that it was far-fetched but law enforcement agents have expressed serious interest in [weaponized drones] because they can contain crowds without having any officers present," she said. "One of the things I wonder about is will drones become a tool of law enforcement agents but will private citizens be restricted from using them due to safety concerns?"

Crump also said that drones were more problematic from a civil liberties perspective because they were much less costly to operate and maintain than manned aircraft such as helicopters that police currently use for aerial surveillance. 

John Villasenor, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institute, shared Crump's view that unmanned drones can be particularly problematic for privacy issues since they're so much smaller and harder to detect than traditional aerial craft.

"FPV aircraft can make it easier to spy," he said. "A pilot who's sitting in a car parked 10 blocks away while operating a drone is less likely to get caught... Sensitive government and military facilities could find it harder to detect a small unmanned drone."

But while Villasenor acknowledged that unmanned drones created real risks for privacy and security, he also said they also provide life-saving technologies that are too beneficial to ignore, such as the ability to easily search for stranded survivors that need medical attention in the wake of natural disasters. Villasenor said some of the biggest issues in deploying unmanned drones domestically will be how to safely integrate potentially tens of thousands of new vehicles into American airspace.

"It's a complex problem," he said. How in the world are we going to navigate the safety challenges of having tens of thousands of these unmanned drones being used for assorted reasons? The sheer math of it says that we're going to have some hiccups along the way."

Kenneth Anderson, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, also thought that safety was a major concern for the future of unmanned drones and warned that the technology would face an immediate public backlash if drones were involved in high-profile accidents.

"It wouldn't take many safety incidents of a serious kind to shut the whole thing back down," he says.

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