Domestic Drones Are Coming Your Way

Unmanned aerial vehicles are capable of far more than just state-sanctioned killing and police surveillance.


When Americans think about drones today, they tend to think of two things: state-sanctioned killing and police surveillance. Yet drones are capable of so much more.

Six hours into his epic filibuster last week, Sen. Rand Paul had to settle for Mike & Ike's from the Senate candy drawer to quell his hunger. But is there any question he would have much rather had some delicious carnitas delivered by quadrocopter?

TacoCopter is the very-early-stage start-up—or hoax, depending on how you look at things—that promises to deliver tacos via autonomous drones to the coordinates of customers who place orders using a smartphone app. It sounds crazy, but it is actually perfectly plausible. Small drones are made from many of the same components as smartphones, and the economies of scale of that industry have driven the cost of gyroscopes, accelerometers, GPS chips, and CPUs to the ground. As a result, the widespread use of drones in commerce is imminent—unless politicians overreact to the bad press.

While Paul's stand brought much needed attention to the government's use of drones in targeted killings, it also created the danger that the public will only see drones in this negative light. Unmanned aerial vehicles and other autonomous systems, however, are neutral technologies that can be put to good uses as well as bad ones. Yet panic about some particular applications, like assassination and surveillance, could hamper their adoption for wholly beneficial purposes.

Local delivery of goods is one obvious application for domestic commercial drones. For example, Matternet is a startup that aims to use flying robots to transport drugs and medical testing kits to remote regions of the world. Other commercial applications abound. Farmers today use drones not only to spray their crops, but also to monitor soil patterns, reducing the amount of chemicals and water they use. Photographers and filmmakers can now easily get aerial shots that previously required expensive manned helicopters or airplanes. And heavy industry uses drones to inspect pipelines or otherwise take a peek wherever else it's too dangerous to send a human.

Scientists use drones to study wildlife without disturbing it, and journalists are looking to use them in reporting. In 2011, Occupy Wall Street activists launched drones over Zuccotti Park to keep an eye out for police brutality. Some even envision a day when flying robots will construct buildings.

This is why the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that the commercial drone industry could grow to $90 billion over then next 10 years. It just has to be legalized first.

Today, the for-profit use of drones is illegal. That's why there are no TacoCopter deliveries to be had. On the other hand, non-commercial uses of small drones are in something of a legal gray area, viewed as similar to hobbyist model planes. That's how farmers get away with using them; essentially the FAA looks the other way. But this is all about to change.

Last year, Congress passed legislation requiring the FAA to issue regulations integrating drones into the national airspace by September 2015. The agency has begun its work gingerly, starting the testing process that will lead to commercial use, and issuing experimental licenses to law enforcement agencies.

That last bit is what has many worried about the coming proliferation of domestic drones. While there are plenty of good public safety uses for drones—like emergency response in hazardous situations—there are also some to be feared, in particular the prospect of cheap and routine warrantless surveillance by the police. More ominously, the ACLU has noted: "Drone manufacturers are also considering offering police the option of arming these remote-controlled aircraft with (nonlethal for now) weapons like rubber bullets, Tasers, and tear gas."

The reaction from the public and politicians has been fast and furious. Legislatures in at least 30 states are considering laws that restrict drone use by law enforcement. In Seattle last month, public outcry forced the mayor to order the police chief to return two new drones to their manufacturer.

So far, so good. Requiring that police get a warrant before engaging in surveillance is a no-brainer. But there is a danger that fear of governmental abuse of drones might result in the public demanding—or at least politicians hearing them ask for—precautionary restrictions on personal and commercial uses as well. For example, a bill being considered in New Hampshire would make all aerial photography illegal. And a bill recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives would make it a crime to use a private drone to photograph someone "in a manner that is highly offensive to a reasonable person … engaging in a personal or familial activity under circumstances in which the individual had a reasonable expectation of privacy"—a somewhat convoluted standard.

Restrictions on private drones may indeed be necessary some day, as the impending explosion of drone activity will no doubt disrupt our current social patterns. But before deciding on these restrictions, shouldn't legislators and regulators wait until we have flying around more than a tiny fraction of the thousands of domestic drones the FAA estimates will be active this decade?

If officials don't wait, they are bound to set the wrong rules since they will have no real data and only their imaginations to go on. It's quite possible that existing privacy and liability laws will adequately handle most future conflicts. It's also likely social norms will evolve and adapt to a world replete with robots.

By legislating hastily out of fear we would be forgoing the learning that comes from trial and error, trading progress for illusory security. And there is no clearer sign of human progress than tacos from the sky.