Unmanned Aircraft Systems, commonly called drones, are in widespread use by the military. Companies like Amazon.com have excited the public and the media by promising the use of drone technology for commercial applications, such as delivering small packages by air to one’s own home.
But before drones will routinely fly through commercial American airspace, experts say many legal, social, and privacy-related issues need to be worked out first.
Those issues were the subject of “Domestic Drones: What the Latest Advancements in Aviation Technology Mean to Security, Liability, Privacy, and Commerce,” a panel discussion held at the Columbus School of Law on Nov. 6th.
The four panelists, which included two CUA Law alumni, addressed major aspects of the expanded use of drones in the nation’s skies. They discussed the technological capabilities of various types of vehicles, where government regulatory efforts stand, what the private sector anticipates from increased use of drones, and what kind of privacy issues are raised by the prospect of remote-controlled aerial cameras cruising over people’s backyards.
Speaking first, Dr. Matthew Hutchison, Vice President, Rockwell Collins Control Technologies, Inc., outlined the five major groups of drones, describing what each is used for. He noted that the lower altitudes required for commercial applications mean engineers have to hone better ways of preventing crashes with ground-based objects.
“How do you implement that detect-and-avoid capability in the absence of a live crew?” he said.
Dean E. Griffith, CUA Law Class of 2006 and an attorney with the Office of the Chief Counsel for the FAA, explained that his agency is in the “accommodation” phase of complying with Congress’s directive to open up commercial airspace for drone use. There are six test sites around the country currently working to make it happen.
An upbeat assessment of the future of drones followed from a fellow alumnus, Gerald Murphy, 2003, with Crowell Moring, LLP’s Aviation Practice Division.
“From a commercial perspective, there is virtually limitless use for them. There is huge pent-up demand,” he said. He offered the James Bond film “Skyfall” as one example. Many of its action sequences were shot by an overhead drone.
Murphy said that while questions of privacy are real, the FAA lacks jurisdiction to deal with them. He warned against waiting too long to move ahead on the promise of unmanned aircraft systems, which would amount to a “lost opportunity.”
“The industry is ready,” said Murphy.
But average Americans may not be, said CUA Law Professor Mary Leary, a noted scholar in issues involving privacy and technology.
She offered Facebook as an example of a company that makes its money by selling information about its members to advertisers and other outside entities. What, Leary wondered, would prevent a company that can collect personal information by flying drones over private property from doing the same thing?
“There are some real privacy issues here. Do we even have a reasonable expectation of privacy anymore?” she asked.
The panel discussion was sponsored by the Federalist Society, The Law and Public Policy Program and the Military and National Security Law Students Association.