Drones, are we ready yet?

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it Superman? No, it’s an aerial drone being used for commercial and recreational purposes, or is it?

In today’s day and age where drone technology is advancing at an unprecedented rate, the question must be posed, is it morally justifiable to allow semi-autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (SUAV) to fly over our heads? This article examines the ethical cycle regarding the implementation of SUAVs or drones in public space.

An Angel in the Sky

Hurricane Katrina saw the first deployment of drones in a disaster, controlled by the Safety Security Rescue Research Center to search wreckages for survivors costing only $25 per hour compared to $15,000 for a manned helicopter. The Amazon Prime Air project aims to provide a rapid parcel delivery service for its customers using drones where it guarantees delivery in under 30 minutes or less.  From a utilitarian standpoint these examples justify the employment of drones for commercial purposes.

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An argument often posed is that the use of drones in a public space risks invasion of privacy. However, the law dictates an individual only has a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in public. Thus by entering the public domain one essentially gives up their personal right to complete privacy. Hence as long as methods can be developed to prevent drones from filming over a private space, the argument of “complete” privacy remains unreasonable.

The term drones covers a wide variety of SUAVs. Some can weigh 1900 pounds and remain in the sky for as long as 30 hours, and have extensive capabilities that may be used for malign purposes. Whereas others can be as small as 6 inches and pose minimal risk to public safety. Thus specific legislative framework is required to distinguish the threat posed by different types of drones. Currently the absence of concrete legal framework, means that the moral responsibility of the drone and its actions, lie in the hands of the operator. Although having relevant legal framework in place might take time and effort, it should not mean that the commercial and personal use of drones, be completely dismissed.

Swarm robotics explores the use of miniature semi-autonomous “smart” drones that operate in a pack or swarm with the potential to be used in a wide range of tasks such as repairing damaged rail infrastructure. A recent report published by The Arup Group concluded that swarm drones can be used to perform structural analysis, provide critical information on the location and intensity of damage and potentially even repair existing flaws, thereby completing tasks that might otherwise require extensive manpower.

This is a clear example of how miniature drones – that pose minimal risk to public safety or privacy – can be used in ways that directly improve the standard of living.

Cars and planes can potentially cause harm to the public, but they aren’t banned. This reasoning is just as valid and applicable to SUAVs. It is the actions and intentions of the person controlling the drone along with the resulting consequences that need to be examined, regulated and explored. Entirely disregarding a technological innovation that can play a pivotal role in improving the quality of life would mean society would stagnate. This is a time for technological and legislative advancement.

The Unblinking Eye

Privacy is a fundamental human right recognised by the United Nations and a law enforced by most countries. The current state of government legislation is poorly suited to address any breach in privacy caused by the use of consumer drones. Society is still uncertain regarding the accepted level of individual privacy in public space. Is it okay to film other individuals in public without their consent or stalking their public movements? And if so does accidental recording fall under this? This question becomes more sensitive in public areas where more privacy is expected such as at beaches or outside night clubs, hospitals and law courts.

A recent event in the US where a drone was shot down by a man whose house the drone ‘trespassed’ created quite a spark on social media. There were claims that the drone was used to spy on his teenage daughter who was sunbathing in the back garden. These sorts of incidents which violate the privacy of people are appalling and the authorities have no means to stop them.

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Drones can pose a serious threat to airport security. Drones flying near the airports can be a major hazard for the passengers travelling in airplanes. The Federal Aviation Authority released monthly reports of close calls between planes and drones. One report mentions that 138 pilots reported drone sightings at altitudes upto 10000ft. This clearly shows that there is no enforcement of the law which states that small drones should fly below 400ft. Similarly there are no current means of preventing drones from entering no-fly zones and tracking its source of origin.

Cyber criminals hold the potential threat to actually hack into civilian drones which are just being used for recreational purposes. Since, the drones have a radius of frequency in which they can actually communicate with the operator and once outside this range of frequency they can lose touch with base, these hackers can hijack the drone and cause widespread panic and chaos. Imagine rogue drones flying around your city! Would you feel safe living in such a world!?

There needs to be a major change in legal and technological framework regarding the sale and use of commercial drones in order to prevent users from entering restricted areas and invading people’s privacy. The current legislation does not make it mandatory for manufacturers to include technologies such as GPS geofencing, selective signal jammers amongst others but however rely on the consumers ‘good will’ to follow government laid guidelines. This deontic approach is not sufficient and can easily be abused. While such frameworks are still being developed, the governments should impose heavy taxes to increase the price, reduce the demand and avoid the misuse of drones.

45: Uday Puri, Dhruv Gandhi, Aditya Pathak, Rohan N Singh

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7 thoughts on “Drones, are we ready yet?

  1. Interesting article! I wonder how prevalent privacy breaches are though, especially when compared to the widespread use of smartphones.

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  2. Great article guys, raises an interesting question, though I’ll always lean on the side of advancement over censorship.

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  3. Great article guys, interesting read. I’ll always put advancement ahead of censorship, but it does make a great debate.

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  4. Very interesting debate. Personally I think the services that drones could offer as displayed in the article outweigh the privacy invasion. I understand how this may effect people and every effort should be made to respect this but I believe that drones will be a part of out future.

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  5. Lovely article! I believe we are ready for them, we have to keep up with the continuous enhancement of technology and this would be a good way of doing so. I believe that the privacy issues is outweighed by the benefits, but I guess the government will be the ultimate decider of this.

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  6. Great article. I believe this is a very recent debate which involves everyone. On one side we have the continuous demand to keep up with technology, and on the other we have the privacy thematic which is a key concern in a more digitally-focused world like the one we live in. Hard call, as bots could be extremely useful for our world, but the privacy matter, as we have seen in the recent apple case, is a key concern and cannot be seconded to other issues. Therefore, I must say that privacy comes before technology, as it is very easy for our generation to be carried away by the fast-paced growth of technology. It is important to not forget the core principles through which our society is based upon.

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  7. I don’t agree with regards to ‘privacy’ counter-drone argument. Privacy is all but dead. Everything one does on the internet is tracked in some way or another. Your browsing data is collected, your personal info can be gathered from your social media profiles, your address and phone number are on the online version of your local phonebook. The outside world is not free from prying eyes either. In the UK alone, there is a CCTV camera per 10 capita. Virtually all public spaces are watched 24/7. Paparazzi have been chasing celebrities for decades to get shots of them outside, suddenly the prospect of a drone doing that to any average joe is ‘too much’ ? The only real privacy one can you can get is when you’re offline at home with the curtains closed.

    Drone hacking is a credible danger. Depending on the purpose of the drone, a person with nefarious intentions could use it to carry out whatever they wished. Already, tech-hackers have attached all manner of tools to airborne consumer drones, the most useful I have seen so far has been a chainsaw, to cut hard to reach branches from tall trees. It does not take an imaginative mind to see how this could be dangerous if used under the wrong circumstances. Drone hacking and drone software go hand in hand, as the software gets better, the hacking will get harder (or will it? computers have been around for years now, but hackers have always seemed to find a way.). As of now, the hacking of consumer drones has been more the random experiment of an enthusiastic geek than the action of a criminal with intent. I would not be overtly worried about this for now.

    As stated in the article, drone development has lead to variety of remarkably helpful uses. Drones can go where men cannot. Have humans not always built things that can perform tasks for them? How is this any different? The nay-sayers will moan and complain for a while, the technology will keep developing regardless. I for one am really looking forward to seeing what doors drones will open in the future.

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