Deregulate drones to avoid dystopia

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Robotics in general, and drones in particular, are becoming not the stuff of science fiction but of everyday life. However, it seems that we are at a crossroads both in the development of this technology and the laws surrounding its use. In science fiction, drones are almost always just tools. However, the United States’ current drone record suggests a future dystopia with a sky full of relentless kill-droids rather than a utopia full of helpful robots making deliveries and watching over crops.

This may sound like hyperbole, but two important developments occurred last week, both of which are poised to change the way American drones are sold and used. First, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a report detailing a proposal for overly restrictive rules on the private use of drones. The FAA would require drones used by civilians to remain below 500 feet and in visual range of a fully-in-control operator at all times.

While flying devices need rules and regulations for the safety of the general public, the FAA’s proposal would prevent most drone-related businesses or services from taking off, especially since recreational use of radio control (RC) planes and non-professional drone use remains unrestricted for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) under 55 pounds.

Delivery drones would have to routinely be out of visual range of an operator, and the proposed rules make no allowance for the use of GPS or camera systems to make up for being outside of visual range. While a height ceiling is necessary, especially when the drone may be near manned aircraft, 500 feet is a relatively low ceiling and may interfere with the proposed use of drones to monitor large crop fields for signs of disease or drought.

While the FAA was proposing a potentially too-tight set of rules for domestic drone operators to adhere to, just a few days later the State Department announced a handful of restrictions on the export of armed drones to allied nations. While drone technology has been independently developed in many countries, and numerous unarmed drones are exported by the United States and other countries, armed American drones such as the MQ-9 Predator remain the most battle-tested and field-proven options.

Drones are much cheaper to purchase and to operate than conventional aircraft, and the investment in training a pilot isn’t lost whenever one is shot down. Like it or not, drones are an important emerging tool in warfare, and exporting armed drones is in some ways very similar to other military technology. However, the State Department guidelines indicate that drones can only be sold to nations that will not use them in unlawful circumstances — an interesting development given our current government’s penchant for illegal drone use.

There is little doubt that drone technology will become widespread in the near future, and that society will be changed in both positive and negative ways by its presence. But when it comes to directing technological developments and society’s use of drone technology, the government needs to devote more attention to creating an environment that allows Americans to benefit from drones, rather than making it easier for foreign governments to fight their wars.