Letting Drones Reach their Potential

Ryan Calo on why the potential uses of drones for good are endless and should be protected from citizen backlash.
By: /
December 12, 2012

I have three concerns regarding the domestic use of drones.  The first is that drones will facilitate massive surveillance by the government.  The second is that private parties will use drones to harass one another.  The third is that, precisely because of their readily imagined capacity for privacy mischief, the transformative potential of drones will never be realized.

This third concern – the concern for the drones themselves – may be the most pressing.  The prospect of military-grade drones on the home front is certainly chilling, but the present reality is that police departments cannot afford cutting-edge technology.  The drones owned by, for instance, the City of Seattle, where I live, can only stay up in the air for a short time.  It turns out to be hard to oppress in 10-minute increments (law firm billing notwithstanding).  This is not to deny that officers could put today’s drones to questionable use, borrow drones from the federal government, or upgrade their technology over time.  But for now, opportunities for constitutionally offensive conduct are relatively limited.


Similarly, many may recoil at the prospect of flying cameras in the hands of teenagers or paparazzi.  No bathroom window or backyard would be safe.  Those already uncomfortable with Google’s Street View technology might not welcome a less vertically challenged update.  Yet, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) – the American agency that Congress recently charged with expanding drone use in the United States – is not supposed to relax restrictions on private use until at least the fall of 2015.  This gives us a few years of breathing room.

In contrast, the danger that citizen backlash will ground drones is immediate.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, drones constitute an atypically visceral and salient example of surveillance technology.  People in the West are nervous about robots in general.  We find the specific act of drone surveillance – which many associate with the theatre of war (see “KILL”) – all too easy to imagine.  As such, drones generate intense opposition, to the point that I’ve gone on record saying that drones may help resuscitate long-dead concepts such as the reasonable expectation of privacy in public.

But think of the drones.  The potential uses of drones for good are endless (see “AID”).  The police can use drones to find the missing, improve tactical responses through better situational awareness, respond to disasters, or photograph unusual or difficult-to-access crimes scenes.  Parents are using drones to confirm their kids make it to the bus; teachers to teach physics; artists to provoke and reveal; activists to police the police; farmers to monitor and tend crops; environmentalists to catch polluters; and architectural photographers to explore new angles.  Likely, too, drones could be used for something you’ve never heard of: Perhaps the most wonderful development has been the emergence of the drone as a platform, which leaves the possibilities for applications in the millions of hands of software developers and end users. 

One might be tempted to simply tell opponents of drones to calm down.  That would be a mistake.  First, they absolutely have a point: This technology is headed in a direction that could seriously undermine civil liberties if left unchecked.  And second, no one takes well to being dismissed out of hand.  Rather, we should give in to their demands – demands, it should be noted, that are by and large very reasonable.  The FAA should acquiesce to requests from the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the chambers of Representatives Ed Markey and Joe Barton, and others, to condition issuance of licences to operate drones on responsible privacy practices.  Demonstrated privacy violations could then result in revoking the licences.  Domestic and federal law enforcement should be more transparent about existing and anticipated programs.  And police departments should commit to securing a warrant before using drones for many investigative purposes.  These, and perhaps other, reasonable conditions are a small price to pay to avoid curtailing a transformative technology of our time.

Also in the series


The Case for Humanitarian Drones

Jack C. Chow on how drones can dramatically change aid – if only we can overcome the stigma associated with them.

The Case Against Humanitarian Drones

Nathaniel A. Raymond, Brittany Card, and Ziad Al Achkar on why drones should not be deployed in humanitarian operations

Drones for Human Rights

Christopher Tuckwood on why UAVs should be added to the human rights tool box.

Drones in the Field

From kamikaze killers to stealth stalkers, OpenCanada runs through the ways drones are being used in the field today.

Lethal Drones

Council on Foreign Relations fellow Micah Zenko on how UAVs are a different kind of weapon, and one that is quickly proliferating.

Why Drones Win

Amitai Etzioni on why, in terms of morality and efficiency, drones win hands down.

Drone Proliferation

Denis Stairs on why the proliferation of military drones could be both a stabilizing and destabilizing force.

The Slow Death of the ‘Non-Combatant’

Jennifer Welsh on how targeting processes for drone strikes challenges how we traditionally distinguish non-combatants in war.

Where Drones Fit in Fields of Violence

There are serious concerns to navigate when it comes to the political geography of remote warfare.

Gregory Johnsen on Yemen, the U.S., and Drones

OpenCanada's interview with the author of The Last Refuge.

The Robotics Revolution

Brookings senior fellow Peter W. Singer on the broader implications of the use of drones for surveillance and war.

Drones For Good

Matthew Schroyer on why so many people get drones wrong – they're not all heartless, pilotless killing machines.

Drone Knowns and Unknowns

Joshua Foust on why the discussion around drone strikes is muddled and vague at best.

Are Drones Right for Canada?

Major-General Fraser Holman (Retired) on how Canada might best make use of UAV technology.

The View From the Ground

Renee Filiatrault on what it means to have an eye in the sky for the boots on the ground.