Unmanned aerial systems, also known as drones, have maintained a lasting presence in the headlines over the past few years, whether it was their applications in the United States’ wars or concerns about domestic use of drones for surveillance and law enforcement. Interestingly, drones are not limited purely to military and government use. The field is quickly expanding to include civilian and commercial applications. While hobbyists can now simply pick up a drone at stores such as Barnes and Noble, commercial usage of drones has yet to make a significant impact on our society as of yet. Funding is abundant, however, so within the next few years, our society will change rapidly with the introduction of commercial drone use. One must ask him or herself: Will drones be buzzing around us within a few years, delivering items and performing services?
Drones can be used for any number of things. They can be used to monitor crops, mining, and other important activities. They can also be used for more mundane things, such as pizza delivery via drone and personal shopping. Drone investment has skyrocketed compared to last year- $40.9 million dollars was invested in drone startups so far this year, more than double of last years’ investment. Projected sales of civilian drones are predicted to reach $8.2 billion within the next decade.
Furthermore, the government is mandating that drones play a larger role in certain aspects of our lives. The Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA, has yet to comply with a Congressional mandate that required the administration to integrate certain types of drones for civilian and commercial use into national airspace by Q3 2015. The FAA is unlikely to comply with the mandate on time and that is not without reason – this type of technology has never been used for civilian or commercial purposes as of yet and there exists no data to determine drone usage and applications as of yet.
Consequently, one must wonder if drones can be used for commercial purposes at the moment? The answer is yes and no. In 2007, the FAA released a statement that banned usage of drones for business purposes due to concerns about unacceptable safety risks without proper integration. However, the FAA’s regulatory stance on drones is on shaky ground – the FAA did not go through the proper rule making process. Without following this process, the FAA’s regulations are not legally binding. Hence, commercial drone usage remains uncharted territory despite the fact that production and investment has skyrocketed, meaning the actual usage of drones commercially remains in question.
One reason why actual usage remains in question is privacy issues. Drones are usable for many commercial uses that do not invade privacy such as mining, environmental monitoring and emergency response. Unfortunately, privacy concerns are very real because the only statutes, so far, concerning drone collected data are related only to law enforcement usage of drones. Accordingly, the ACLU has exposed many concerns with private and business drone usage – mainly because drones can be used to track, classify and identify people on the go and create profiles of the people they see. While there is proposed state legislation that states that law enforcement must delete data after a certain number of days, such legislation does not exist for commercial users of drones.
We’ve all been exposed to the effects of corporations and businesses keeping track of our buying decisions – ads on websites such as Facebook and features such as Amazon’s recommended items show us that companies are actively using data gleaned from our activities. Companies also frequently buy collections of data from third parties, such as phone number lists. Commercial drones, however, unleash a whole new suite of problems – businesses could theoretically track individuals through data collection, and through collaboration with other businesses, construct complete profiles. Are drones pushing the idea of business data collection too far? Will drone use, in the foreseeable future, help create the type of dystopian worlds we see in games like Deus Ex where our lives and actions are subject not only to online data collection, but also surveillance by machines to distinguish our individual likes, dislikes, lifestyles and even our secrets?
It is unarguable that drones take that first step towards destroying privacy. The very fact that there will be drones performing a multitude of tasks all over the United States in the future leads to the very real possibility that their data collection skills will be abused. At the very least, companies using their capabilities to film and profile individuals would lead to our decisions and lifestyles being known by a wide variety of entities. Having drones around will be like having cameras constantly whirring about us in daily life, recording our activities, whether it is intentional or not.
Despite these potential privacy issues, however, the future of drone usage seems to be certain. While the FAA may be slow in accomplishing Congress’ mandate, the massive boom in drone investing and drone related legislation makes a favorable response to commercial drone use all but certain. Already, the UAS industry is shaping up with Washington and California competing to be the major hubs of the drone industry. At this rate, we should get used to the fact that within the next decade, drones will become part of everyday life, even though we will be sacrificing some of our privacy. I would not, however, count on pizza delivery with drones in the near future.