Keeping Pace with Technology: Need for a Pliable Unmanned Aircraft Systems Policy

23 December, 2013

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (hereafter UAS) colloquially "drones" have been the topic of discussion globally in recent years, especially in regards to the United States military and intelligence agencies use of UAVs armed with guided missiles designed to strike counter-terrorism targets and counter-insurgency interests.

The specific categorization for these armed variants of UAVs is Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs) or Unmanned Combat Air Systems (UCAS), and it is precisely the United States use of its UCAVs/UCAS that has been the center of globalized debate ranging from its effectiveness, to legality, to ethical and moral appropriateness.

Obscured by the public debates surrounding UCAVs, the advancements in UAS technologies (the unarmed systems intended for civilian or commercial use) and the need for a comprehensive policy that will both guide and regulate the future developments and employment of such technologies and also ensure their smooth integration into the public airspace has gone largely unheeded by academics, policy makers, and the general public alike.

Indeed, there are advocates who strongly and vigorously champion just such a need. Their efforts led President Obama to sign a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) bill authorizing $63.4 billion to integrate commercial and civil UAS into the United States airspace, which requires the FAA to present by 2015 an airspace integration road map that incorporates UAS. Their ongoing work and accomplishments are largely unknown to those outside of the "circle."

How are the UAS employed for non-military purposes in North America, and what are some of the debates surrounding their employment today?
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Most readers are probably familiar with a recent 60 Minutes story about Amazon's plan to utilize UAS for delivery purposes in the next 5 years, pending additional safety testing and FAA approval. On the non-commercial front, numerous law enforcement agencies throughout the United States already employ UAS to aid in their daily operations. Additionally, various emergency management agencies and private enterprises have employed UAS to detect weather patterns, natural disasters, and to monitor agriculture. As technologies associated with UAS improve, they are becoming smaller, better equipped, and smarter. According to Christopher Calabrese, the author of Eyes In The Sky, many of the UAS today are capable of operating in environments with varying lighting conditions, equipped with night vision cameras. They are also capable of conducting sophisticated surveillance missions utilizing high-powered zoom lenses, video imaging, and transparent analyzing vision packages. Although the advances in UAS technology have been beneficial, their proliferation is not without concern.

Protection of privacy and civil rights are at the forefront of concerns associated with the proliferation of UAS technologies in the United States. The Supreme Court has been asked to provide an interpretation of the Fourth Amendment, and its limitations, in regards to government agencies use of UAS both domestically and abroad. The Supreme Court has not yet issued an opinion on this issue, but lower courts have granted requests to government agencies to employ UAS in a surveillance role without warrants, in order to monitor potential criminal and terrorist related activities.

Recognizing the need for a coherent policy that will simultaneously support essential mission requirements and protect the rights of citizens, The International Chiefs of Police Aviation Committee has published its Recommended Guidelines for the use of Unmanned Aircraft in August 2012, which has been adopted by many state and local law enforcement agencies in the United States. The American Civil Liberties Union has also published its study on the domestic use of UAS in December 2011 and has made recommendations for safeguarding the privacy and rights of citizens. State legislatures have introduced and in some cases enacted laws to regulate the use and development of UAS technology, both to protect the rights of citizens and to reap the potential lifesaving benefits of the technology, while also ensuring adherence to public safety standards and addressing potential economic impacts.

While there are some differences in the language and the scope of these recommendations, all share a core fundamental intent: to protect the rights and safety of the public while harnessing the benefits of this emerging technology.

UAS technology brings with it a full spectrum of issues: practical, theoretical, philosophical, ethical, and emotional. Controversy and debate surround each of these issues and considering the potential implications of UAS technology these concerns are valid.

No matter the outcome of these debates two things are clear: UAS technology is here to stay, and there is an imminent need for the development and implementation of a comprehensive, yet pliable, policy, both at the federal and at the state level, that will be able to proactively address the evolution of this emerging field.