Drone Technology – October 15, 2013


The international news media primarily focuses on U.S. drone attacks as a counter-terrorism measure in Yemen, Afghanistan, the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and Somalia.  The U.S. claims significant success in eliminating the senior leadership of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, but that is not the whole story.  Official reports tend to downplay civilian casualties.  According to some sources in the United States and elsewhere that have been tracking these strikes, a large number of civilians have been killed and wounded.  Afghanistan and Pakistan have protested frequently to the U.S. about these strikes, which they consider a violation of their sovereignty.  Of course, they are powerless to stop them by countervailing means or by diplomatic persuasion because in official Washington’s eyes, drone attacks are efficient mechanisms to get rid of extremists who are bent upon causing harm to the United States.


Drone technology is developing rapidly for purposes and uses other than counter-terrorism.  In a recent analysis, the Financial Times informed its readership “the opening of US air space to drones has the potential to create a $12 billion industry but have also sparked fear about privacy.”  For supporters of this technology, the introduction of drones into the US air space is akin to the advent of the automobile or the Internet.  “It is like the introduction of the computer in the 1980s – it is on that level,” says Peter Singer, a scholar at the Brookings Institute.


There is no shortage of critics either, who fear what the introduction of drones could do to the privacy of US citizens.  To these critics, the introduction of domestic drones brings the threat of a new type of surveillance, an exaggerated version of the technology – led snooping dramatized by Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA).  Dianne Feinstein, a leading Democratic Senator, is a prominent critic.  She has remarked, “the greatest threat to the privacy of Americans is the drone and the use of the drone and the very few regulations that are on it today.”


Interestingly, the new drone technology has attracted the attention of law enforcement agencies.  They look at drones as a much cheaper alternative to the helicopters they use for some operations.  According to the Financial Times, the Boston Police Department said that it would like to deploy a drone to monitor the route of the city’s marathon after bombs exploded at the finish line this year.  Don Roby, a Baltimore Police Captain, suggests the technology could be “effective in search and rescue operations, for mapping crime scenes, or monitoring traffic accidents…compared to helicopters, we are talking pennies on the dollar to operate [drones].”


Other potential commercial applications related to the cargo industry; to the delivery of medicines and other essential goods to places with poor roads.  It has been postulated that drones might be used to spot illegal marijuana plantations.  Among the business plans that have been proposed are mini-drones that can deliver burritos and tacos to students.


Privacy issues have created intense political concerns about this new technology.  Domestic drones raise many of the same questions about when and where the state is allowed to monitor people and how the data is used.  Ryan Calo, a privacy law expert at the University of Washington, has stated that “drones are a much more visceral reminder of the surveillance state than anything the NSA is doing.”  Another unintended offshoot about the debate over drones is that the opposition to this technology is bringing together, according to the Financial Times, “some strange bedfellows from the Libertarian Right and Civil Liberties Left – a new strand of politics that unites outsiders against the establishment.”


Given the political and legal issues confronting this new industry, some experts opine that the strongest demand for now for drones will emanate from the agriculture industry.  As farms become bigger, drones can monitor crops for disease and damage, allowing farmers to be more selective about using pesticides or irrigation.  Steven Gitlin, an executive at Aero-vironment, a company that makes small drones that could be used in agriculture stated “who could complain about farmers flying something over their own fields?”


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