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.
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.
Unmanned aircraft are tools. Nothing more, nothing less. But while the government and UAS manufacturers are working together in a closed feedback loop with defined criteria for what equals success, public perception of “the drone” is developing in a vacuum.
Unmanned aircraft need a better and more diverse voice. That does not mean that we think the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International needs to launch a “Drones 4 America” grassroots campaign or engage in UAS product placement (the next Coke commercial should not feature a polar bear receiving a Coke via UAS). But it does mean that everyone who benefits or hopes to benefit from unmanned aircraft—law enforcement, delivery services, farmers, researchers—needs to speak up to better tell the stories of how UAS will help cut costs, save lives and improve everyday activities.
There are so many fascinating examples of how unmanned aircraft can be used for good. The Senate believes they are a key to efficient and effective border security. They are invaluable for search and rescue efforts. Hollywood wants to use them to film movies. College students are really hoping that their next taco will be delivered by a quadrotor. Farmers want to use unmanned aircraft to more efficiently survey their crops.
Overall, it is estimated the domestic UAS industry will create 70,000 jobs and have an economic impact of $13.6 billion in 2015-2018 alone. The current discussion, focused on military and surveillance applications, only tells part of the story.
Drones have an image problem. Public distrust will fester and solidify if decisive action is not taken to change the tenor and content of public discussion about unmanned aircraft.
In order to counter this image problem, supporters must do five things:
- Unite with pioneering early adopters to improve the flow of reality-based information from manufacturers and users
- Highlight the stark differences between the use of unmanned aircraft on the battlefield and their future in domestic airspace
- Create explicit boundaries to partition government and commercial use of UAS
- Actively educate Americans about the countless practical uses for UAS across domestic industries
- Provide guidance to policymakers so that they pursue sensible legislation
Make no mistake. We need robust rules of the road for UAS. But the rules must be fact-based. For domestic unmanned aircraft to be beneficial for Americans tomorrow, their supporters must begin to reshape the dialogue today.