Drones—unmanned flying machines—will soon fill our skies. They conjure up fears, especially among some of my fellow libertarians, of spying and death from above.
These fears aren't groundless. President Bush approved the use of armed drones against suspected terrorists overseas, and President Obama vastly increased their use. Drones have killed thousands of people in places such as Pakistan and Yemen, countries against which we have not declared war.
Drones keep getting more sophisticated. The Air Force is now developing what it calls Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs), tiny drones that can quietly search for an individual terrorist and then kill him with explosives or even incapacitate him with chemicals.
So far, America has killed with drones only outside America. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) famously filibustered Obama's nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA, demanding that Americans first receive clarification on the government's policy regarding use of lethal drones within the U.S. Finally, the attorney general responded, "Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil? The answer to that question is no."
Good for Sen. Paul. Technology itself is not evil, but what government does with it should be determined by clear rules.
The next controversy will center on the increasing use of "civilian" drones. Researching a documentary, Policing America, I was surprised to learn that I could buy a "personal" drone for only $500. For another $700, my TV staff added a camera to it. These are terrific devices. Vacationers use them to videotape family trips, farmers to check crops, police to search for missing people.
Soon, most everyone might have one. In the six months since I began researching Policing America, drone prices have dropped sharply. Recently we bought one—admittedly, a flimsy one—for just $50. That includes a camera.
Our too-big government will try to quash this innovation. This week the Wall Street Journal reported that government standards "are at least four years away" and quoted a bureaucrat who said, "The incremental approach is essential." So the FAA sends "cease and desist" orders to restaurants that use drones to deliver food to remote areas, realtors who show off houses, movie makers and journalists who use drones to get aerial footage of disasters, protests, celebrity weddings, etc.
"Commercial use" is illegal, says government (regulators don't like business). Fortunately, some entrepreneurs ignore the restrictions. Martin Scorsese used a drone to videotape parts of Wolf of Wall Street. It's great when people practice civil disobedience against idiot regulators.
The FAA is right to worry about air safety, but that can be handled less intrusively with rules that ban drones near airports.
Of course, private drone use can get creepy. A woman in Connecticut recently attacked a drone operator at a beach because she was angry about being spied upon.
Like a good libertarian, Sen. Paul realizes that ambiguous property rights are the real problem. He jokes that his neighbor has a drone: "If I see it over my property, my shotgun's coming out."
America already has peeping-Tom laws. I can look through my neighbor's window, but I can't legally get my stepladder and spy over his fence. State courts will work this stuff out.
As usual, the market will probably produce the best solutions, just as algorithmic anti-spam programs proved more effective than useless anti-spam laws. An aerospace engineer emailed me that he's created a Drone Shield you can use to spot unwelcome intrusions.
That will get trickier as drones become smaller and quieter—I've seen video of new ones that resemble hummingbirds. But detection technology will improve as well. That constant feedback and competition is how all technology advances.
Technology itself is rarely a bad thing. What matters is the endless power of the market to refine and improve how we use it. If government will just relax its regulatory chokehold, private citizens will find safe ways to deliver food, rescue lost cats and fill the skies with happy new possibilities