Archive for October 11, 2013

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), colloquially known as “drones,” are fascinating as pieces of technology. But they are not revolutionary. There is little a UAS can do that an airplane or a helicopter can’t. Yet because of their size, remotely-piloted nature and extensive utilization by the military, UASs have captured the public’s attention in a manner that is generally reserved for truly disruptive, world-changing technologies.

This is not good news for the UAS.

Unmanned aircraft are widely valued for their ability to track and kill enemy targets overseas. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 66 percent of Americans support UAS strikes abroad. But their use has spawned a cottage industry at home trafficking in drone-based paranoia, recently peaking in April with an eight-city drone protest campaign.

Fear and misunderstanding of unmanned aircraft is spreading rapidly, and it is not just at the fringes of society.

We have identified 30 states in which legislatures have passed or are considering bills this year to restrict the ability of public and private organizations to operate unmanned aircraft. Proposed prohibitions range from banning UAS surveillance, banning most aerial photography and requiring public hearings before a law enforcement agency could purchase UAS.

Not all of the proposed legislation is necessarily ill-advised in its content—there must be clear privacy and operational regulations–but the cumulative rush to legislate based on fear is not derived from a rational assessment of the societal costs and benefits of UAS operations.

Why are unmanned aircraft now being viewed as a threat-worthy of SkyNet? Last week’s revelation by FBI Director Robert Mueller to the Senate Judiciary Committee that his agency uses UAS for domestic surveillance on a limited basis will certainly not help. But we believe the true problem, which has been allowed to develop unchecked for too long, is that there is a disconnect between the public and those who build and use unmanned aircraft—and who know their actual capabilities and limitations.

Illustration of the United States Navy’s BAMS unmanned aircraft.


To steal a line from Cool Hand Luke, “what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

Because of this failure to communicate, even as unmanned aircraft rack up innumerable successes for the military and law enforcement, those very successes are slowly poisoning the well of public trust and creating a “not in my backyard” mentality about their use.

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