Where Do We Go From Here?

Last in a three-part series on unmanned vehicles
(see Part 1 and Part 2)

NASA parrot drone

The Parrot flying AR Drone can be flown using an iPhone or iPad. Photo: NASA/Sean Smith

At present, unmanned aerial vehicles — “drones” in the popular parlance — are used for military surveillance and strikes, civilian environmental and wildlife monitoring, and scientific research purposes. Private citizens use remotely operated toy airplanes and helicopters for entertainment, and sometimes to spy on their neighbors. (“So This Is How It Begins: Guy Refuses to Stop Drone-Spying on Seattle Woman” by Rebecca J. Rosen, The Atlantic, May 13 2013)

“What we don’t have now is tabloid paparazzi drones chasing celebrities, pizza delivery drones enticing packs of dogs Pied Piper-like down the street, or advertising drones cluttering the night sky. This could change after September 2015, the deadline given in the 2012 FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) Modernization and Reform Act for the full integration of unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System — the common area that begins a few hundred feet above your back yard (the FAA has several definitions of just where this begins). The new FAA rules will apply only to drones flying below 400 feet (122 meters) and weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kg). (“Uncertainties remain as FAA integrates drones into American skies” by Josh Solomon, McClatchy, April 29, 2013)

Current privacy and public safety laws cover much of the mischief that weaponized or camera-bearing drones could do. However, any new technology enables new dangerous and annoying misuses that aren’t covered in existing laws, simply because they weren’t possible before.

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) summarized some of the legislative and policy challenges facing expanded drone use at “The Drone Next Door“, a May 7 seminar in Washington, DC, put on by the Future Tense consortium: The New America Foundation, Arizona State University, and Slate (Twitter hashtag #FTdrones).  Gosar stated that he supports Second Amendment (right to bear arms) and individual privacy rights, but that the implications of new drone capabilities must be “fleshed out”.

Do we even have a Constitutional framework for something like this? “I think so,” he said. Legislators must “break the Constitution into simple parts, and address this as personal responsibility.” But do 2nd Amendment rights apply to remotely operated vehicles? “We’re having that conversation. It needs to be open to the public and make sense to the public,” Gosar said.

Still to be determined is who regulates this aspect of drones. Is it the FAA (whose mandate includes public safety, but not privacy rights)? Is this the domain of local police departments? Is it legal for me to shoot down my neighbor’s drone if it flies over my property? The consensus of several panel speakers at the Future Tense event was that privacy issues will probably be hashed out in the civil and criminal courts over a period of years as specific cases arise.

Drone Drivers

Determining the degree of human oversight is a safety issue, but it’s also a public support issue. People are naturally uncomfortable with a machine making the decision whether to pull the trigger on a weapon (autonomous lethality). But more benign applications must win the public’s trust as well before they can be adopted widely. Self-parking cars are on the market today, and Google tested a driverless car (with a human in the driver’s seat just in case) in Manhattan on April 2 of this year.

One driverless car running over a three-year-old could “shut down the industry” according to Missy Cummings, MIT associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and a former Navy fighter pilot. “Google cars slipped in while we were stressing over UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles], but they are more likely to hurt you,” she said. Personal air vehicles might be on the horizon, and this will bring up further safety issues.

Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, disagreed with this assessment, stating that government and industry leaders must emphasize how autonomous vehicles bring down the rate of auto accidents overall. Automated navigation takes human reaction time, emotional states, boredom, and distraction out of the equation. This will be especially important in dealing with cognitive decline as our population ages. He also noted that if your car drives itself, it doesn’t matter if its passengers can’t resist the urge to send text messages from the road. Safety and accountability are paramount when determining the necessary degree of human oversight, Toscano said.

Peeping Drones

At present, private citizens in the U.S. have more leeway to spy on each other than does the government because of regulatory restrictions, according to Daniel Rothenberg, a law professor at Arizona State University.

“Could the government do an end run around these restrictions by encouraging citizens to spy on each other?” asked ACLU staff attorney Catherine Crump. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, local authorities asked bystanders to provide cell phone photos to help identify suspects. How far could law enforcement agencies take their requests for citizens to monitor and report each other? Lawsuits will drive the development of legal guidelines and restrictions on citizen surveillance, Crump said.

Where drone surveillance differs from past incursions on personal privacy, Crump continued, is that the public is finding out about drones as the technology is rolling out. In contrast, the general public found out about the extent of personal data collection done by Google, FaceBook, and other online platforms only after their systems were fully in place and had been operational for some time.

Crump cites an “opportunity to get in on the ground level” with privacy protection regulations for drones. In the U.S., it’s typical for legislation to be implemented sector by sector, enabling the development of a drone-specific body of laws. This requires that law enforcement agencies have a specific purpose in cracking down on specific activities, and that they be able to demonstrate that such restrictions are beneficial to society overall.

Drawing the Lines

Unmanned aerial vehicles in the domestic airspace should be required to broadcast an ID signal and conform to traffic control and limitations on functionality, noted Matthew Waite, founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Fellow panelist Joseph Hall, of the Center for Democracy and Technology, cited a need to strike a balance between a chaotic patchwork of customized state and local regulations and an unworkable one-size-fits-all regime. Captain Don Roby of the Baltimore County Police Department urged engagement with communities to find out what citizens are willing to accept.

Roby predicted that as more and more businesses find application for unmanned vehicles, the price will start to come down, spurring even wider adoption. “It’s like the PC revolution,” he said. Hall cautioned that not everyone will have the skills to pilot the larger drones, which he referred to as “flying lawnmowers” because of their helicopter-like rotors.

How will regulators know where to draw the lines? Waite suggested that regulations should be relaxed somewhat before the full integration of commercial drones, in order to experiment and see how things work out. Hall proposed an open-source community of hobbyists posting their experiences and test results.

Overall, the panelists agreed that current laws cover many of the issues surrounding privacy, property rights, probable cause for persistent surveillance, and how long data may be retained. Crump and Rothenberg noted that recent court cases have tackled the limits of remote surveillance using, for example, GPS units surreptitiously affixed to a suspect’s car or heat sensors monitoring activity inside a suspect’s home. The “war on terrorism” has prompted extensive debate over the distinction between civilian law and the law of war. Drones could potentially collect information on “patterns of life” tracking people’s habits and routines 24 x 7, but the concerns this introduces has less to do with the actual drone technology than with the privacy issues arising from new surveillance capabilities.

“Technology is an equal-opportunity enabler,” write Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen in their bookThe New Digital Age. It empowers diplomats and terrorists alike. (“Turn on, log in, opt out?” by Lauren Kirchner, Columbia Journalism Review, May 1, 2013) The drone plane providing the dramatic aerial shots of your kid’s wedding could come back and peek through your bathroom window tomorrow. The main issue isn’t the technology itself, but how we choose to use it.

What Is a Drone?

Second posting in a three-part series (see previous post)

Recent news stories have familiarized us with military drones bearing names like Predator and Reaper. Popular television shows feature tiny spy drones, conjuring images of CIA black ops. You could be forgiven for assuming that drones are a new and pernicious misuse of government power. But what are drones, really, and how are they being used?

The word “drone” is a popular term for any one of several types of unmanned vehicles that fly, swim, or travel over land. Most drones have some type of human guidance, whether it’s a kid at the other end of the kite string or a soldier or sailor sitting at a control panel hundreds of miles away. The variety of functions and capabilities is reflected in a menagerie of abbreviations: UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), UAS (unmanned aerial system), RPV (remotely piloted vehicle), ROV (remotely operated vehicle), RPA (remotely piloted aircraft), UUV (unmanned underwater vehicle), and the list goes on.

Unmanned ground vehicles range from the Roomba automated vacuum cleaner to DARPA’s Big Dog robotic “pack animal”. REMUS vehicles (Remote Environmental Monitoring UnitS, operate underwater, taking orders from a human at a simple laptop computer or traversing a preprogrammed route. REMUS vehicles have patrolled Puget Sound, monitoring the temperature and salinity of the water. Specially adapted REMUS vehicles have surveyed New York City’s public water mains to check for leaks.

Aerial drone use is certainly not new. You might say that Benjamin Franklin used a drone kite to carry his metal key aloft during his experiments with lightning.

Oil burn experiment

1993 Newfoundland Oil Burn Experiment (Canadian Coast Guard photo)

More recently, miniature helicopters known as ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) flew through a smoke plume and monitored the air during the 1993 Newfoundland Offshore Burn Experiment, a collaboration between the U.S. and Canada in which a contained oil spill was set on fire in order to observe the effects on the surroundings and examine the after-products. (The helicopter in the photo at right is a full-sized, passenger-carrying helicopter carrying support crew for this event.) The Predator drones used in military operations are about the size of a glider plane. Some military surveillance drones are small enough for one person to launch by throwing them into the air (photo below). The U.S. Army is funding development work on hummingbird-sized drones that can fly into small spaces and avoid being noticed.

hand launched drone

Pvt. Patrick Hernandez practices launching a RQ-11B Raven. (USDOD photo by Pamela Redford, Fort Riley Public Affairs)

The Drone Next Door“, a May 7 Future Tense presentation at the New America Foundation (Twitter #FTdrones), focused on aerial drones. These unmanned vehicles operate with various degrees of autonomy. Automated aerial drones can operate without a human steering them, but they follow a specific set of instructions: fly this high, go that fast, travel this far in a specified direction. Autonomous drones can operate independently, executing a mission while making its own decisions under uncertain circumstances: locate and retrieve a specific package, but find your own way past any obstacles and recover from any mishaps you might encounter on the way.

Flying cameras are old technology, said Missy Cummings, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, and one of the U.S. Navy’s first female fighter pilots. What’s new about drones is their ability to make aerial imaging cost effective. The main limitations for drone-mounted sensors are weight and power requirements.

Is there any way of avoiding drone surveillance? Cummings facetiously mentioned anti-UAV hoodies. She noted that for every technology, there is an anti-technology. The Navy is very concerned with GPS denial technology, and is working to develop a drone that does not rely on GPS for navigation. Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, noted that signal interference, intentional or not, could pose a safety issue by disorienting the drone and possibly causing it to crash.

Drones are in widespread use for military operations, but are we in danger of being overrun with drones once their commercial use becomes legal in the U.S.? Konstantin Kakaes, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, cited several examples where military technologies failed to make the transition to the civilian world. Nuclear-powered airplanes and nuclear explosions as excavation tools never caught on. President Kennedy pushed for supersonic passenger jets, but the Concorde was a European project, and it was not a commercial success. One success story, GPS navigation, was not predicted to make the transition from military-only use. It succeeded because it provided unique capabilities, and the price came down as it became more widely used.

The KMAX, and unmanned cargo helicopter, proved useful in the remote regions of Afghanistan, but it was not as useful in the U.S. Barriers to technology adoption include production costs and infrastructure requirements such as refueling stations, said Kakaes. A technology that provides a unique capability in a remote, primitive, or hazardous area could lose out to cheaper and better competitors in a modern city.

Drones could, however, prove themselves useful in an urban setting if they could effectively increase capabilities and reduce costs for search and rescue missions (finding survivors of a building collapse, for example), crime scene investigation, traffic accident reporting, and missing person searches, according to Captain Don Roby of the Baltimore County Police Department.

Current FAA rules prohibit commercial use of drones, but under the new rules in 2015, they could reduce costs for traffic reporting and monitor environmental changes, said Matthew Waite, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor who founded the Drone Journalism Lab. Waite was not especially concerned about the possibility of airborne paparazzi on every street corner in the near future. “Journalists are horrible pilots,” he said, citing his and his students’ misadventures.

What about scientific research? “Cost is the biggest hurdle for science,” said Robbie Hood, Director of Unmanned Aerial Systems at NOAA. You’re looking at established technology, she said, with the UAV as just another observing system, a “force multiplier for science”. Satellites can provide snapshot views of the ground below, but UASs can stay with a weather system as it develops, providing a more detailed picture. This could enable NOAA to observe a hurricane as it first forms over the open ocean. As climate change opens up shipping lanes in the Arctic, drones will monitor shipping activity, oil spills, and detailed weather reporting that could help prevent ship strandings.

Carter Roberts, president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund, described how airborne drones are being used to monitor political unrest in areas where sensitive wildlife populations could be harmed. Drones also check for poaching activity, which WWF reports to the governments of the affected areas. Drones provide more immediate feedback than satellite collars, which can cost $10,000 each. Transmitter chips attached to an animal can send text messages to drones overhead much more cheaply. Thermal imaging can be used to reveal the presence of poachers at night, when they are most active. This opens up the possibility of pre-empting the poachers before they make their kill.

Previous post: Don’t Drone Me, Bro 

To come: Hashing it all out: How will we deal with the practical effects of having more unmanned vehicles in our daily lives?

Don’t Drone Me, Bro

by Nancy McGuire (wordchemist.com)

Don't Drone Me, Bro

Reddit

Drones Make Enemies

sharondelgado.org

(Washington, DC) A quick news search on the word “drone” pulls up associated words including “strike”, “attack”, “secrecy”, and “protest”. Polls and surveys indicate that the word “drone” triggers an anxious response, based on military-heavy news coverage and fears of the various things that drones have come to symbolize. Often, these responses are based on factors not specific to the drones themselves government intrusion, loss of privacy, possibility of attack.

These points surfaced throughout the day during “The Drone Next Door“, a May 7, 2013, event hosted by Future Tense. Speakers and panels including journalists, legislators, academics, think tank fellows, representatives from industry and advocacy organizations, law enforcement officers, and scientific researchers discussed all things drone-related: what are they used for now, how are they likely to be used in the near future, and what does this mean for ordinary people at home and abroad.

Future Tense is a collaboration comprising Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. The small auditorium at New America Foundation’s Washington, DC office suite was packed with journalists, policy specialists, hobbyists, and other interested parties, with more people watching via webcast and C-SPAN. Pithy quotes and amusing anecdotes lit up the Twitterverse at @FutureTenseNow #FTdrones.

The May 7 event focused on unmanned aerial vehicles, what most people associate with the word “drone”. These range in size from the airplane-sized Predators to sparrow-sized helicopter toys to robotic flies (still under development). Most of these drones rely on human pilots at the far end of a physical tether or sending radio signals from a remote control station.

Will Salatan, national correspondent for Slate, opened the session with a summary of polls and surveys designed to measure public support for using drone vehicles in various situations. Unsurprisingly, the phrasing of the questions influenced the answers that people gave. More people were willing to support drone strikes abroad if they were authorized by “the U.S.” rather than “The President”, indicating discomfort with the idea of authority resting with one person. People indicated support for antiterrorism missions and military uses than for things like local law enforcement. The overall sense was that it’s OK to monitor “them” but not “us”, Salatan said. A significant number of people claimed that they would shoot down a drone flying over their property. (Unless it was delivering beer, a potential commercial application that was mentioned later in the day.)

Does having more information increase public support for using drones? If it’s a military application, the answer is yes, said Salatan. For domestic uses overall, having more information doesn’t increase support. This varies when you break it down to specific cases. People tend to view search and rescue operations, drug law enforcement, and immigration law enforcement more favorably than surveillance of suspected criminals (we might get caught in that net), and we really don’t want drones photographing our car as we speed through a school zone.

When people aren’t worrying about unmanned vehicles “raining down death out of the sky” (another phrase that popped up during the day), they stress out over Big Brother peering into their daily activities. Why do people freak out over drones more than social media or credit card companies, voracious collectors of your data? Much of this reaction has to do with the well-publicized military and CIA surveillance applications, according to law professor Daniel Rothenberg of Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies.

Commercial and government snooping make the news, but usually long after the fact. There’s a sense that you can’t do much about this type of data collection. Government spy drones are “over there”, and we don’t necessarily want them coming home. There is a sense that it’s still early enough in the game to push back against drones doing domestic surveillance.

Under current FAA rules, it’s illegal to use a drone in the United States for commercial purposes. This is slated to change in September 2015, the deadline that Congress has given the FAA to come up with a plan for integrating commercial UAVs to the domestic airspace. Some local governments have already enacted legislation restricting drone use for law enforcement purposes.

There was no consensus at the May 7 event as to how various local and state regulations would affect the FAA’s plan. The FAA’s mandate covers safety issues, not personal privacy, but it would be very difficult to treat these aspects as completely separate, several of the panelists noted. Many of the practicalities will be worked out case by case in the civil and criminal courts, the panelists agreed.

Toward the end of the day, Rothenberg summed up the current situation: “It may not be a rational debate, but at least we’re having the debate.”

More to come
Technology: How are we using unmanned vehicles now, and how will we be using them in the near future?
Hashing it all out: How will we deal with the practical effects of having more unmanned vehicles in our daily lives?

Resources
What the Drone Debate Is Really About (Daniel Rothenberg, May 6, in Slate)
The Golden Age of Privacy Is Over (Brad Allenby, April 30, in Slate)
Will Bureaucracy Keep the U.S. Drone Industry Grounded? (Martin Kaste, April 30, National Public Radio)