The Coming Drone Revolution: What You Should Know

Unmanned planes will soon fly America’s skies. But getting there won’t be easy.

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In a couple years there could be as many as 30,000 drones swooping through American skies doing everything from taking aerial photos, monitoring natural disasters, and maybe even delivering tacos. While drones can certainly help law enforcement and bolster the economy, America needs to think long and hard about the implications of unmanned aircraft use, a panel of experts said at the Brookings Institution Thursday.

In February, Congress ordered the FAA to create guidelines for domestic drone use—the agency is expected to release those guidelines later this summer, and drones might be cleared for private and law-enforcement use in the next couple years. There are numerous privacy, safety, and national security concerns that need to be addressed and many more that haven't even been dreamed up yet—here's what we should be on the watch for.

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The Drone Revolution

When drones are eventually allowed to fly in American airspace, it'll be a "very big change," said Brookings senior fellow Benjamin Wittes. "Consider the rules that exist now—you can essentially fly a model aircraft of one sort or another for noncommercial purposes under 400 feet. You can putter around, but you can't sell services, and you can't get in the way of the big boys."

Experts predict as many as 30,000 unmanned aerial vehicles in a couple years—they'll be owned by journalists, police departments, disaster rescue teams, scientists, real estate agents, and private citizens.

Expect Turbulence

Kenneth Anderson, a law professor and senior fellow at Brookings, says the government needs to anticipate there will be bumps in the road when drones are eventually implemented. Someone will weaponize them, creeps will use them to spy on their neighbors—but that doesn't mean drones are bad, he says.

"The worst thing we can do is allow the law to be driven by really ugly cases," he says. Peeping tom and stalking laws should be updated now, not after drones are already in the air. "There will be cases—something horrific is going to happen, it'll be drones combined with cyber stalking and someone throws themselves off a roof in despair. If we enacted a criminal set of sanctions in response to this, it'd be a bad approach. We can already anticipate these situations."

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Deja Vu

The privacy arguments surrounding drones aren't all that different from the ones surrounding police snooping or surveillance cameras in public places, says Paul Rosenzweig, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

"There are no new [privacy] questions, only the same questions over and over again," he says. "Drones might be more pervasive, but they're not so terribly different than other aerial surveillance, like helicopters."

There's the potential for police abuse of drones, just like there's the chance police misuse their firearm.

"We have training, hiring, oversight, regulation [for police firearms]—it's not easy, and it changes over time, but we don't disarm the police because of abuse of weapons, we try to hire the right guys, give them training, and discipline the guys who do it badly," he says.

But Not Quite

The cost of flying a surveillance airplane or helicopter is several magnitudes above that of a battery-powered drone. The UAVs can stay aloft for long periods of time, and unlike helicopters, they can't be easily detected. "People behave differently when they know they're under surveillance," says Catherine Crump, of the American Civil Liberties Union. "We are not opposed to the domestic use of drones, but we're concerned that they could become tools of general or pervasive surveillance."

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Wait and See

People are going to use drones in unexpected ways—someone has already said they've made a drone that can deliver tacos, and the FAA won't be able, or prepared to anticipate everything. Drones will scare people, but they need to be informed of drones' potential to save lives in dangerous situations and find disaster survivors, says Rosenzweig. The government needs to proceed carefully in this area.