2015 – Year of the Drones?
By Simon Lerner
2015 – Year of the Drones?
13 Jan 2015 - Delany & Co

The discussion around the use of drone technology has been heated at times – a step down the path to a dystopian Second Machine Age or the cutting edge of progress depending on your point of view.

Tech giants and technologists have led the call for their widespread introduction to civil society, whilst civil liberties activists and legal commentators have tended to support a more cautious approach.

The debate is hottest in America where investment is at its most extensive, yet those seeking to drive the market feel they have come up against a regulatory impasse. At present, the commercial use of small drones is effectively banned whilst recreational use is not.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was tasked by congress in 2012 to formulate a regulatory framework for the introduction of drones into US airspace. The regulator has pushed back and said it intends to introduce legislation on a more incremental basis.

A set of draft proposals for smaller drones is set for release and suspected to be highly restrictive compared to many other jurisdictions. They are now in the hands of the White House, which drone advocates hope will dampen the proposals with some much needed consideration for industry development, before being put out to public scrutiny.

A handful of companies have already been allowed to undertake test flights under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act 2012 – a drone specific piece of legislation that empowers the regulator to grant waivers to the prohibition.

In July, Amazon applied for an exemption to allow the open air testing of its Prime Air delivery system in the US. It plans to provide rapid parcel delivery to customers in thirty minutes or less using small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAE’s).

Although not rejected outright, the request has been held off with an undisclosed request for additional information and a series of difficult legal questions, asking Amazon to do no less than explain why the right to test flights constitutes the public good.

In a letter of response, Amazon’s VP of policy, Paul Misener, 
has accused the FSA of questioning the “fundamental benefits” of keeping UAE technology in the US and running contrary to the pioneering spirit of American innovation.

Misener raises the possibility of R&D fight from the US. The warning is not without substance – both Google and Amazon have been reported to be undertaking testing in the UK and Australia where companies can operate under straightforward flight based safety rules. Ten Section 33 exemptions do not compare well to the UK’s batch of three hundred licences for commercial drone operators.

Some disagree and feel the FAA’s slow approach is well proportioned. The FAA’s remit is to maintain aerial safety not promote business opportunity. Drones are a rapidly developing technology and there are significant safety concerns ranging from aircraft collision to criminal misuse.

It is also self-evident that drones, whether used in by commercial, state or civilian actors raise new frontiers for privacy concerns. At the start of 2014, Senator Diane Feinstein voiced her fears to a Senate policy hearing. Drones, she says, “have the unique capability to peer into private homes and businesses and listen to private conversations.” The Senator argues that steps must be taken to develop privacy restrictions and capabilities whilst the industry is still in its infancy.

The White House has confirmed that it is considering a series of executive orders to cover both federal and private drone privacy. The President is set to direct the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) to create a set of voluntary best practices for private drone operators. Tech companies, civil rights and consumer welfare groups will likely form part of a dialogue process towards realising the guidelines.

It is worth nothing that even ardent drone critics such as Feinstein do not dispute the possibilities of the UAE technological revolution – ranging from environmentally friendly precision agriculture (set to be the largest beneficiary) and logistics, to a seemingly limitless raft of everyday applications. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems summarises the potential succinctly in terms of saving “money, time and lives.”

Taking a longer view, its is hard to find an analyst willing to predict that America will allow the suppression of a prospective multi billion-dollar industry and technology that may come to characterise the economy of the future. With public consultation and debate on its way, the parameters for the use and development of drones in developed nations could well be laid out this year in the US.

Image Credited: Lima Pix