Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – Friend or Foe?

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UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) or ‘drones’ have been used numerously for military purposes and most recently by tech-hobbyists. But there is a lot of controversy on whether these UAVs are unethical as they break privacy and safety rights, and are becoming an unjust tool for national security. Is this really the case? This article aims to uncover this issue by comparing the pros and cons of using UAVs for ethical purposes.

Against UAVs

Invasion of privacy and excessive surveillance exists as two significant reasons for drone opposition. The act of monitoring the general population with UAVs is  regarded severely as an intrusion to personal life. Public opinion on using drones for domestic surveillance is also strongly influenced by the person or group that is using the technology, with high tolerance towards the government. The comparison between surveillance for security and surveillance for market research has a clear contrast in terms of necessity. Nonetheless, it may be difficult to regulate the use of drones, as identifying them and linking them back to their owners can be tricky.

To make matters worse, misuse of smaller, aerial-imaging UAVs have been emerging in the news. It can be fun to behold all the wondrous sceneries from birds-eye view, but some dare-devils have taken it too far for the sake of a little fame. There have been numerous near-misses between drones and passenger airliners that could affect the safety of the passengers.  Some preventive measures, such as stringent regulations (Article 166), have been taken to restrict drones from flying into unauthorised areas and flying too high to the sky. The UK Civil Aviation Authority clearly states that any unmanned aircraft is not permitted to be flown at a height of more than 400 feet above the ground and within 5 miles radius of an airport.  However, this technology is too easily accessible and could allow them to virtually fly anywhere unsupervised resulting in the increase in the number of drone-related accidents. This creates discomfort in the community and unnecessary turmoil towards an already aggravated issue.

With the technology of UAV becoming more sophisticated, crime-rings have began using them as a mode for transporting contrabands. If drones are capable of carrying heavy equipment, it is a no-brainer that people could adapt them to carry illegal supplies across borders. In fact, there have been several cases of these drones spotted attempting to transport illegal drugs across the Mexican border. Some believe this poses a threat to national security as current countermeasures may not have the capabilities to completely control this problem.

Most standard used drones are equipped with GPS navigation and some are vulnerable to hacking as they use unencrypted GPS software. A military drone, even with full data encryption, was allegedly brought down by hackers in Iran in 2011 by jamming the signal. A report also suggested that destructive motivation led them not only to hack the military drone, but to reverse-engineer the content of the drone, which could be used against its owner. This shocking news leads us to wonder whether hackers around the world could potentially plan a coordinated attacks using our very own weapons against us. This further clarifies the risk of UAV usage for anti-terrorism.

For UAVs

Like various pieces of modern technology, UAVs are but simple tools in the hands of humans. With this being said, it is unjust to claim that all UAVs will be used for ‘evil’ deeds.

Currently, UAVs are being regarded as a viable option for search-and-rescue operations, where response is a key factor. What makes them so beneficial is that they are cheap, fast to deploy, and able to provide quick aerial surveillance across  broad regions. As a result, emergency services and even volunteers have championed the usage of UAVs for this application, one of the most notable being SWARM. A web application, aeroSee has also been launched to recruit some extra eyes in reviewing millions of images uploaded from UAVs, allowing the public to help in the search-and-rescue operations. This feature could reduce the demand from emergency services and improve response time.

The capabilities of UAV can also be hugely beneficial from a business perspective. Cyberhawk, a company from Livingston, specializes in drones for aerial inspection and have performed jobs for large firms such as Shell, Total, Statoil and ExxonMobil. Without this technology, businesses would waste thousands on scaffolding and physical labour, as well as losing profits from having to close down sites.

UAVs are also being designed for package delivery, with the latest ‘Amazon Prime Air’ getting a lot of public attention. Other than being fairly convenient, these drones could be used to deliver urgent resources such as medicine and food to people in locations inaccessible by other means.

A company in Germany actually announced an ‘autonomous quadcopter’ delivery service, that will send packages to a remote island 12 km into the North Sea, saving time and resources otherwise wasted delivering goods by boat or helicopter. Just think how this could improve the lives of those in difficult living conditions and in urgent need of supplies. The time between the beginning of a disaster and receiving the aid could be significantly reduced.

Although people are very sceptical about the use of UAVs for anti-terrorist purposes, the military and the government may argue that the use of these devices could resort in higher accuracy of operations and less intervention from ground troops. This could be an ethical approach for the troops and their families as fewer coffins will be sent home, but you could argue that this is only in the government’s interest, a political tactic to give the public a feeling of security whilst temporally eradicating international threats, and not addressing the consequences of these actions.

In the end, the question arises as to whether UAVs are truly a benefit to society and a solution to global threats, or does it create more harm than good. When do ethical ideals break down? And what restrictions should be in place to prevent irrational use of this technology?

52: S.L. Leng, C. Xavier, Z.J. Yeong, O. Bentham

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9 thoughts on “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – Friend or Foe?

  1. I think the drone use in the public sector would be a risk as for now the navigation and maneuverability are not able to handle winds of up to 10mph which could cause collision into high rise buildings and pose severe health and safety risks. In the event of a malfunction, the landing of a drone in private property which did not request a delivery or service would be an invasion of privacy.

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  2. A very interesting article, well written.

    In my opinion, the best way to tackle these problems is to regulate the usage of drones. By forming a method of regulating the drones (serial numbers, mandatory GPS trackers, etc.) it would make it a lot easier to keep track of people who break the law with drones, whilst being able to reap the many benefits of UAVs.

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  3. I think in order to solve the problems is to keep track and limit the usage of drone. Government needs to step in to control the activities involve with drones and strengthen the law involve with drones too.

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  4. A very interesting article, and I would share it with innovators and programmers.

    Flying drones is a common technology that had entered the future. We as innovators can produce new ways of using drones such as Amazon is using drones to deliver products as a friendly.

    The companies who adopted drones had always to sign papers to obey the law or get sued, but the most common factor with drones is when people are buying drones for fun use without knowing the danger. In a way it would become a foe when people have no responsibilities for using drones in homes or public areas.

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  5. Although there are some arguments against the UAVs, in my opinion, the advantages of using UAV overweighs the disadvantages. Perhaps, some of the problems of using UAV can be circumvented by introducing stricter rules and regulations.

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  6. Cool, well balanced article with valid points on the dangers of UAVs.
    Regarding the general population, I feel that UAVS are freaking awesome if the proper safety procedures as well as laws are enforced. Limits placed on the amount of units sold is a good idea. Enforcement is an issue which needs more discussion because the only way is to probably shoot them down if they exceed the “no fly zone”. Regarding the use of UAV’s in military ops, I feel that it prevents the death of soldiers by just removing the human element but this is a complicated topic which needs a more detailed discussion.

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  7. A very well written article
    However I think as in many cases there are always pros and cons about something, and in this situation the pros seem to outweigh the cons. Maybe we can start working on how to improve security in its use rather than just condemning it.

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  8. Well, I think that the misuse of UAVs should not be a factor to deter the advancement of this technology. When cameras and CCTVs were first introduced, many can argue of its ability to invade privacy and of surveillance. When cars and planes were invented, it provides the opportunity as well to easily transport illicit substances. Where would we be today if we did not allow technology to progress? It is up to the regulatory bodies to decide and combat the issues mentioned. UAVs should not be blamed for its misuse by several individuals and this is the same with other forms of technology.

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  9. Currenty policy has gradually been developed targeting usage of UAV in protecting public safety as well privacy. Whenever there’s new technology born, it would usually go through a “tech phase”. The media visibility will boost it popularity as the same time expose ethical issue of the product. Eventually, a powerful tech like UAV will be regulated until it reaches a balance of serving people’s life with least harm. Let’s embrace new technology and time will sort it out.

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