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We need to talk about drones ... now.

A Predator drone. (U.S. Air Force/Getty Images)
Contributor, Innovations

Last week, a Virginia House panel approved a two-year moratorium on drone use within the state. In December, Berkeley’s City Council debated a similar proposal from its Peace and Justice Commission. The commission wanted to prohibit the city from purchasing, borrowing, testing or using drones, or allowing “drones in transit.” Hobbyists would, however, have been allowed to use drones which didn’t carry cameras or audio surveillance equipment. The legislation was shot down because, as Berkeley Councilman Gordon Wozniak argued, “Berkeley doesn’t have jurisdiction over its airspace and can’t enforce it unless we buy Patriot missiles to shoot things down.” Both of these bills were prompted by law enforcement officials wanting to use drones for surveillance and intelligence gathering.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) calls this “spying.”

Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke, and distinguished fellow at Singularity University. His past appointments include Harvard Law School, University of California Berkeley, and Emory University. View Archive

These are the harbingers of debates to come as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) moves towards approving the use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems for law enforcement. Groups such as the ACLU are working to stop this because of concerns over privacy. As M. Ryan Calo, my colleague at Stanford Law School and Director for Privacy and Robotics at the Center for Internet & Society, has written, U.S. privacy laws don’t address these issues. This means we are in for some significant legislative battles on Capitol Hill and in the Supreme Court. Calo says these “could be just the visceral jolt society needs to drag privacy law into the twenty-first century.”

No doubt, privacy is an important issue. But this is going to be the least of our concerns as drone technologies advance further. We are entering the “drone age” writes drone-builder Chris Anderson, whose company 3D Robotics sells drone kits to mix and match capabilities. With sensors, optics, and embedded processors advancing exponentially and prices dropping precipitously, do-it-yourself-ers are building even more sophisticated and smaller drones than what the U.S. government had a few years ago.

But you don’t have to be a DIY-er. The Parrot AR.Drone can be purchased on for $299. This quadcopter transmits 720p high-definition streaming video to an iPad or smartphone used to control it. The drone is equipped with a three-axis accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer, and also pressure and ultrasound sensors. Two or three decades ago, such sensors would have cost millions of dollars and weighed hundreds of pounds.

These drones provide useful capabilities for peeping toms or other criminals watching out for law enforcement. But they become a real threat when equipped with weapons, as a hobbyist who calls himself “Milo Danger” showed by mounting a paintball gun on a DIY drone. In a video, he demonstrated a drone flying and firing at stationary targets. The drone could as easily have been equipped with an assault gun, grenade, or Semtex explosives.

Current generations of DIY drones are controlled by Wi-Fi, so the distances they can travel are limited. But it isn’t hard to add autopilot capability to drones, allowing them to fly on their own for several miles. A smartphone, for example, has the processing power and additional sensors needed. Face-recognition technology on smartphones has also advanced to the point where it can identify an individual in a crowd. This means a teenager can, today, build a device similar to what the military uses to hunt terrorists in Afghanistan.

The same technology with a potential for evil can also be used for good, as evidenced by the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to discover and monitor environmental damage and the well-being of rare species. There’s even a community called “Drones for Good” on Google Plus. A company called Matternet, a spin-off of Singularity University that I have advised in my capacity as Vice President of Innovation and Research there, is building a drone network that will operate in parts of the world where there are no roads or infrastructure. Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos estimates that the network will be able to deliver packages for less than what the cheapest transport in the developing world—the motorcycle—costs.

Now, in the developed world, imagine Dominos delivering pizza, FedEx shipping packages from their local hubs to your house by drone, or Starbucks “drone-mailing” you a hot cup of coffee within 3 minutes of your having placed an order. All of this will soon be possible. Government regulations in the U.S. prevent drones being used for commercial use, but this is not the case in other countries. Entrepreneurs in Germany are already toying with pizza delivery.

Technology advances will rapidly increase the capacity and range of these delivery drones to the point that within a few years, we will be able to ship heavy goods—and even ourselves—using these technologies. The possibilities are endless: drones can be used to monitor and control road traffic, track endangered species, assist in disaster relief, crop management, and so on.

Regardless of how the legislative battles go, we need to be prepared. The U.S. is not the only country developing drone capabilities. Governments and DIY’ers all over the world are doing the same. The Chinese, in particular, are marketing military-quality drones that cost less than $1,000, according to Anderson.

There are, of course, deeply troubling security questions around America’s use of drones abroad, as evidenced by a classified 16-page Department of Justice white paper acquired by NBC News. In it, the government outlines its legal rationale for killing Americans abroad — Americans deemed to be a “senior, operational leader” of al-Qaeda or an affiliated group who pose an “imminent threat” to the United States. Then there are the growing number of legal and security questions here at home. Is the Air Force able to shoot down swarms of drone bots should they attack? How can we fortify our schools and public facilities to keep them safe from unmanned drones? Then there is the question of gun rights — a particularly hot topic in recent weeks. If we have the right to carry our own guns, why not our own drones?

Read more news and ideas on Innovations and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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