Drones: Coming to a neighborhood near you

Remember back in 2007 when we were freaking out at Google Maps photographing our neighborhoods? We were worried, and rightly so, about the invasion of our privacy. What if an online stalker or a thief figured out where we lived, saw what our house looked like and scoped out which doors and windows were vulnerable? What if we were inadvertently photographed where we shouldn’t have been? Oops!  Needless to say, except for the demise of a few marriages, we survived the invasion of  Google cars with cameras and learned to love Google street view.

Fast forward to today: In February of this year, President Obama signed the The Federal Aviation Administration Re-Authorization Bill, which among other things, requires the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to make plans to integrate unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, into American airspace. Right now drones are being used on the U.S.-Mexico border, over military airspace, and around 300 public agencies located away from cities and airports. This is scheduled to change on September 30, 2015 when they will be allowed to fly at low levels over all of our airspace.

The FAA estimates that by 2020, 30,000 public and privately owned drones, (sent aloft by news media, police departments, the FBI, Homeland Security, the NSA, disaster rescue teams, scientists, real estate agents, corporations, private citizens, crazy people and, of course, paparazzi) will be flying or hovering silently overhead. And yes, they will have the ability to spy on us. Makes that Google car seem pretty quaint doesn’t it?

Needless to say, this new law was pushed through because there is a lot of money to be made in expanding drone use. To date, much of it has been from military contracts, and, even though the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down, drone use in the military will continue to grow. According to June, 2011 article in the New York Times,

The Pentagon now has some 7,000 aerial drones, compared with fewer than 50 a decade ago. Within the next decade the Air Force anticipates a decrease in manned aircraft but expects its number of “multirole” aerial drones like the Reaper — the ones that spy as well as strike — to nearly quadruple, to 536. Already the Air Force is training more remote pilots, 350 this year alone, than fighter and bomber pilots combined.

But the drone industry is looking to expand beyond the military and has been lobbying congress to open up domestic markets. The Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, otherwise known as the “Drone Caucus” made up of Republican and Democratic representatives from states where drones are made, is responsible for introducing and fast tracking the legislation to allow drones over American airspace. According to the Drone Caucus website, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have been the most dynamic growth sector of the world aerospace industry this decade. It estimates that UAV spending will almost double over the next decade from current worldwide UAV expenditures of $5.9 billion annually to $11.3 billion, totaling just over $94 billion in the next ten years.

Are there legitimate domestic uses for drones? They are cheaper to operate than police helicopters. They are useful for monitoring urban traffic patterns, rescuing people lost in wilderness areas, surveying public lands and protecting public property, to name a few. But the energy behind opening up American airspace to drone use is being driven by the industry and their minions in DC rather than a thoughtful public policy debate. Concerns about the invasion of privacy are given lip service by  congressmen who represent the industry. The industry association that lobbied Congress for passage of this bill, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International refers to the concerns of the “privacy rights community” as obstacles to be overcome. And, then there are the safety issues. The FAA is freaking out about how to make the airspace safe with so many drones flying around.

When drones are unleashed in American skies on September 30, 2015, we will never know when the government, a corporation, or some weird person with deep pockets is monitoring us, or for what purpose.  We can avoid a surveillance camera mounted on a building, but how do we avoid a surveillance drone the size of a bird or an insect? These “microdrones” currently being developed by the military will most certainly be used for public and private domestic surveillance. And then, of course, with the skies being opened up to the proliferation of drones, what’s to keep someone from using a larger drone to drop a dirty bomb?

Drone use will only proliferate over time, as will government and corporate surveillance. Unfortunately, there is no going back. Technology has become a powerful tool for concentrating and expanding government and corporate power. But, as we know, technology can also be a powerful tool for confronting power and spreading democracy. Somehow, I don’t have a good feeling about drones.