The Costs and Benefits of Drones

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), better known as drones, are coming to an airport near you. Widely known for their use by the United States military in the Middle East, they have been used for both reconnaissance as well as for precision missile strikes on targets.

The MQ-9 Reaper Drone, a military “hunter-killer” drone photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The MQ-9 Reaper Drone, a military “hunter-killer” drone photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Previously, drones did not have regulatory framework in place, and as such did not fly in the United States. Then in 2012, Congress ordered the FAA to develop regulatory framework for the licensing and operation of drones by 2015 under the 2012 FAA Reauthorization Act.

Because of their long endurance times and quiet engines, drones are uniquely suited for both surveillance and precision strikes. While manned vehicles are easily heard and are limited by the endurance of their pilots, UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles—the military’s designation) can loiter for up to eight hours before having to return to base and their electric engines are stealthy enough to remain undetected for the duration of their mission

The use of drones in the Middle East has been criticized for making combat and killing too easy. Without any risk of friendly casualties, some have argued it is too easy to send in drones to kill.

In an interview with Russia Today, Leah Bolger, the president of Veterans for Peace questioned how “you define who is a dangerous terrorist and what is terrorism?” She points out, “In my mind, having missiles come from out of the skies and out of nowhere and attacking families, trying to go about their daily business is a form of terrorism.”

Many agree with Bolger and some have gone so far as to call for the United States to be tried for war crimes, as these actions violate provisions of the Geneva Convention, which calls for both trial and attempts to take prisoners alive first.

Despite the mixed opinions surrounding their use in warfare, there is widespread demand for expanding drones for domestic use.

While privacy concerns and issues surrounding navigation still temper demand, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) estimates in a 2013 report that if the FAA meets the 2015 goal created by Congress, the total domestic economic benefit will be greater than $82 billion.

In addition, the AUVSI believes that this industry would also create over 100,000 new high wage jobs. However, the AUVSI report also warns that for every year of delay drone regulation faces, the economy loses $10 billion in potential gain.

Drones have widespread applications domestically. Existing military technology can be easily converted towards domestic use and drones are perfectly suited for doing jobs that humans are ill suited for, such as observing power or gas pipelines for extended periods of time.

Drones can also be used for police work, offering a stealthy counterpart to the traditional police helicopter. Used in the place of helicopters, drones have increased endurance and have a lower cost per hour when flown, while offering equal capabilities.

The vast majority of predicted drone use is in the agricultural sector. Both rotary wing and fixed wing UAS can be used for monitoring fields and spotting potential problems such as standing water or non-uniform crop density. The potential for manual control allows farmers to zoom in and investigate these issues quickly.

Britain’s new “Taranis” drone, named for the Celtic god of thunder photo courtesy of Qinetiq on Flickr

Britain’s new “Taranis” drone, named for the Celtic god of thunder photo courtesy of Qinetiq on Flickr

In addition, drones have the potential to replace crop dusters. One drone, the Yamaha RMAX, has already been extensively used in crop dusting outside of the United States.

Concerns surrounding privacy still dictate much of the conversation around drones.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warns that without rules put in place, we could become a “‘surveillance society’ in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the government.”

The same attributes that make drones so attractive to the military also apply to their potential for domestic law enforcement.

Drones cost a fraction of the price of manned vehicles, so law enforcement can afford to saturate an area.

In addition, using advanced algorithms, drones can identify suspicious behavior autonomously, giving the potential to operate drones independent of employees.

Even with the privacy concerns, the ACLU accepts drones as inevitable for integration into domestic airspace.

But while they believe inclusion is inevitable, they suggest guidelines to mitigate privacy concerns. The ACLU believes that privacy violations and the danger of drones will be minimized if government users are required to obtain a warrant in order to retain any video or imagery recorded by a drone. In addition, the dangers could be further minimized by conducting open audits and through a ban on drone weaponry.

The Grand Forks North Dakota police department, selected by the FAA as one of its early adopter “test” sites, has created an ethics committee to build guidelines to minimize privacy concern.

During a concert, and the resulting influx of people, the use of drones was approved by the committee on several conditions which they believed would limit concerns.

First, the drones employed were only allowed to video cars, which posed traffic hazards, but not humans on foot. In addition, the drone was allowed only to stream footage to a human operator, not permanently record footage. Finally, a sign was put in place to alert the public to the use of the drones.

After being questioned about potential drone use by the NYPD in an interview with New York’s WOR 710, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg pointed out that “it’s not a question of whether I think it’s good or bad. I just don’t see how you could stop that because we’re going to have them.”

The potential benefits of drones and UASs in the United States means that they are inevitable, yet as Bloomberg said later in the same interview in reference to drones and their potential privacy and safety concerns, “This is something that society needs to think about. And not by writing a quick piece of legislation—these are long-term serious problems.”

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About Quinn Donohue

Quinn, a Senior at Lick, is a co-editor in chief. Quinn frequently writes for the Science and Technology, Politics, and Features section of the Paper Tiger. Quinn was a member of the Journalism class Sophomore year, and Junior year did an independent study focusing on science journalism.

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