At the end of 2015, the US Federal Aviation Authority opened the floodgates on the commercial market for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) or drones, as they are more ominously called. Any member of the public can now legally launch their drone into the sky once they register their vehicle and obtain a Certificate of Authorization (COA) or an FAA 333 Exemption, depending on the use. The FAA previously had rules in place for registering a drone, but with the advent of new UAV technology and a surge in requests from commercial entities, the FAA had halted the process until it could instate alternate regulations. The changes have received a mixed reaction from the public, due to the fact that simply registering your vehicle and obtaining permission is enough to fly it almost anywhere you want. The US government has still not properly addressed the issue, and the failure of new policy to address privacy and safety laws could mean that the new FAA regulations are legally void.
The future possibilities of commercial drones are vast and ethically complicated. Security companies see widespread surveillance possibilities, and energy firms get access to construction site inspections. Media outlets have suggested that drones could be used to ‘report from’ dangerous situations, saving them time, money, and lawsuits by not putting journalists on the ground. The agricultural sector, delivery services, and the film industry are all hungry to get their hands on authorized drones to cut costs and experiment with new methods. Each of these uses, however, are now also available to the individual citizen, and once they have registered with the FAA (one drone, one registrant) they receive the same exemption as the companies mentioned above. There are ‘no-fly zones’ such as airports, stadiums, and the White House, but these only scratch the surface of the possible misuses. If behind each machine, there are a multitude of operators (or resold machines), the FAA only has the name and address of the initial registrant. This kind of loophole is reminiscent to the issues surrounding gun sales, despite the fact that drones have even less legislation.
Drones can now be equipped with high resolution cameras, infrared and thermal sensors, as well as wi-fi capabilities. Two of the latest models being launched later this year are based on a “Follow” control, where you carry a tracking device and the drone flies itself. It is being marketed to extreme sports fanatics as a safe and easy way to record yourself, but it is easy to imagine the sinister potential that private detectives or begrudged ex-partners could use it for.
Daniel Herbert, founder of Skygear Solutions, expressed his concern about the ease with which the 300,000 recent applicants (as of January 25th) to the FAA program will have. While he acknowledges that registering with the FAA will encourage some level of accountability for drone users, he states that, “If an irresponsible person chooses to not register his drone and intentionally do something reckless, then that person would likely never be found or held responsible for their actions.” The maximum civil penalty for failing to register a drone is $27,000, but the consequences of doing something reckless with a registered drone are still unknown. The FAA issues the fine, but it will still be up to law enforcement to seek out and investigate the users. With no precedent for illegal drone activity, how police and the FAA decide to prosecute the offenders will likely lay the groundwork for the policies to follow.