Last year in the UK there were reported cases of burglars using drones to scout out potential targets and even though the act of burglary is a crime, the taking of pictures in aerial public spaces is perfectly legal. Does this mean we are surrendering our privacy to these machines? And are the potential life-changing applications too important to simply ignore?
We should be fearful….
Many see the adaptation of drones as a delivery device as visionary, however there are issues. Various stakeholders are debating the potential impact in noise and visual pollution, similar to concerns that initially prevented the proliferation of wind turbines. In addition to concerns of social cohesion, there are apprehensions regarding the ecosystem; the effect that drones could have on birds during nesting and mating season remains unclear. Perhaps the example of the US should be followed, where drones have been banned from national parks in an attempt to minimise these effects.
There is a saying, which states “a man’s home is his castle”. With personal drones becoming increasingly accessible to the public, the ability to observe and intrude upon private property is becoming a very real possibility which is not yet regulated . This technology could enable voyeurism, trespassing and could potentially be used by thieves to stake out target houses. If legislation does not quickly adapt to address the misuse of this technology, drone related crimes could potentially be a significant issue in the coming years.
The natural progression from personal drones would be the ability for governments to further tighten the grip on the human right to privacy. This right is frequently a source of debate, but regardless of the controversy, government sanctioned breaches of privacy set a dangerous precedent for the rights of citizens. The potentially more dangerous application of this technology is the ability for more corrupt governments to terrorise and oppress their citizens, allowing violent despots to keep an iron grip upon the populace. This technology would create a surveillance network which could instil a constant sense of fear over those subdued under a dictatorship.
Similarly, controversy has surrounded America’s use of drones in military airstrikes. Intended to target longstanding enemies of western states, there have been several examples of innocent civilians being killed in the midst of these attacks. These victims are labelled as collateral damage – the implication being that these deaths are a risk worth taking. In addition, these terror targets are suspects, and using drones in this manner amounts to extrajudicial execution, removing the right of fair trial. Even when using consequentialist arguments to support the breaking of this principle, it is hard to ignore data from the bureau of investigative journalism; between 549 to 1342 civilians were killed in drone strikes, with Amnesty International calling such deaths unlawful. When one considers that these strikes are a factor in the radicalisation of civilians that are left terrorised by them, it is clear that this tactic is inducing more harm than good.
The potential of misuse of drone technology is too great to risk unfettered growth; strict regulation is needed to prevent breaches of human rights.
THERE IS NO NEED TO BE WORRIED
According to Forbes the rise in popularity for remotely-operated aircrafts, over the last 9 months of 2014, translated into $16.6 million worth of transactions of more than 127,000 drones on eBay alone.
You may say “surely this means it’s easier for people with bad intentions to severely misuse them” but people made similar cases during the early development of other forms of new technology that are now widely accepted in society. All game-changing devices must go through this scrutiny. It is stated in the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Statement of Ethical Principles that all engineers must “actively promote public awareness and understanding of the impact and benefits of engineering achievements”. Hence, by turning a blind eye to the potential of drones we, as engineers, would be ethically culpable and doing society a disservice. Through further research novel applications will be discovered, and more importantly there will be stricter regulations on their use, manufacture and modification. The Chinese government has already started the long road to widespread drone acceptance through introducing laws stating that anyone wishing to operate a drone over 7kg must carry a licence to use it.
Why now are drones suddenly becoming available on the mass market? Simply because the implications of drone technology far surpass that of just the hobbyist.
Last September, the International Water Management Institute ran trials in Sri Lanka where an infrared sensor was attached to a drone to monitor crop health. Using this technique, stress can be detected in a plant 10 days before it is visible to the eye, thus providing farmers with a vital tool to combat insect infestation and unexpected water shortages. The number of people suffering from malnutrition in the world is a staggering 795 million according to Unicef. By taking a utilitarian viewpoint the idea of potentially saving millions of lives from malnutrition through maximising crop yields comfortably justifies drone use.
Drone technology has also improved safety practices throughout the nuclear industry and is even being considered as a possible means of transport as shown by Amazon’s latest venture into same day delivery.
Now, let’s deal with the elephant in the room: Warfare drones.
The increased use in covert military operations reduces dependency on soldiers and therefore saves lives. From a stoic lens, strikes of high-profile ‘terrorist’ leaders have prevented further fighting and deaths of civilians through terrorist attacks, thus making drone use ethically acceptable. Following the Paris attacks, the terror threat to Europe is the highest it has been in 10 years and the use of drones for surveillance can provide necessary intelligence for the government.
We must also remember the research performed by the military will allow new advances in technology for the commercial drone market, leading to more affordable drone systems that can be utilised in the industries mentioned above.