It's estimated that nearly a million drones will sell this holiday season. Think about that for a moment. A million more drones. Now look up at the cool, clear sky because one day it won't look so vast. The aerial landscape will be littered with tiny robots whizzing through the air, like a scene out of the Jetsons. If you think it sounds too science fiction to be true, guess again. The use of recreational drones marks the first time that robots are occupying a public transit space outside of the direct control of their operators. Since their advent, non-military robots have existed in controlled spaces, for example, laboratories, factories, medical facilities. If a factory owner uses a robot to manufacture a product on an assembly line, that robot is in a space owned and controlled by that business owner. Now, with drones, and other unmanned aircrafts in the sky, it's a free-for-all. A police or fire-operated drone could be flying alongside a terrorist drone, a toy drone cutting off a delivery drone or a paparazzi drone snapping a wedding atop a vineyard next to a commercial crop dusting drone. You get the gist. Everyone's drone will be in the air. Our strictly controlled airspace will soon become a society in the sky. Much like Star Wars, there is already a battle between the good and the evil, as the feds and the states try to police and regulate drones. At the same time legislators and law enforcement must find a way to keep robots from carrying weapons and from endangering commercial planes and low-flying helicopters on emergency missions.
The race to regulate has already begun but it's entirely chaotic. Our laws can't keep up with the widespread sale of drones and the commercial demand for a robot-run society. Consider this example: the Federal Aviation Administration just issued its first major mandate. It is requiring all recreational drone users to register before flying. The FAA says on its website that recreational drone users are considered pilots under federal law and failure to register could result in civil or criminal penalties up to $250,000 or three years in prison. To register, drone operators as young as 13 years old must put their names and addresses into a database that is expected to become public in the near future. I'm sure every parent will love that! Sounds like an a la carte for sexual predators. In addition to registering, operators must put a unique identification code on their devices and police have been informed that unregistered, unidentified drones are prime for punishment. Yet, it appears that the FAA has no legal authority to require registration in the first place.
The FAA is authorized to regulate aircraft to preserve the safety of the national airspace. However, section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 has a special rule exempting model aircraft flown for recreational purposes from FAA rules. Thus, the mandate to register appears prima facie illegal. For now, no one has challenged it, so it stands. The law also makes it difficult to decide whether your drone even qualifies as a model aircraft in the first place. Whether your drone is exempt from FAA rules depends on how you fly it. If you fly your drone properly one day, it is considered a model aircraft, but if you accidentally lose sight of it the next, well then a police officer could be at your door threatening to throw you in jail because you didn't register.
Each criteria is more subjective and unenforceable than the next. For example, the drone has to stay within your line of sight to be a model aircraft. The FAA says operators can use contacts and glasses but not goggles or binoculars to see their drones. But who is deciding whether the drone is within the operator's line of sight? Seems the only qualified person would be the operator, unless the FAA plans to have My Cousin Vinny running its cross-examination. Second, the drone has to comply with a community-based set of guidelines. Does this mean the local co-op board of retirees is going to be setting the guidelines? Teenagers are not reading rule addendums. Next, the operator has to notify air traffic control if it plans to fly. Doesn't air traffic control have enough to manage? Who exactly is taking random calls from drone operators and mapping their locations? This isn't exactly Pushing Tin. Hey, what's up John Cusack? It's Tim. I'm about to launch my Helimax Form500 for my 8th grade school project, is that cool? And finally, the drone has to "stay away" from manned aircraft but there is no specification as to how far away.
The vagueness of the model aircraft criteria and the illegality of the FAA registration requirement illustrate the need for oversight. There is a new body of law emerging. Let's call it Robolaw. We need an entirely new set of rules to govern how to hold humans accountable for the use and actions of their robots. The robot revolution has begun. Japan is leading the way, as robots occupy a great chunk of its industrial sector. United States citizens are also losing jobs to robots. Sounds like a new campaign platform for Donald Trump. "I will remove every battery from those cold-wired, job-stealing imposters and Make America Great Again!" The reality is that robots are often more efficient, cheaper, don't require benefits or healthcare and do their jobs without emotional headaches or demands. Though, I still hate the condescending ones who work for the phone company! The automaton voice does little to conceal their sarcasm. And no, they aren't only taking American jobs. In the medical field, robots are lending a hand in life-saving surgeries. Large companies, like Google are planning to role out self-driving cars while amazon is preparing to replace deliverymen with drones. Give your UPS carrier a nice tip this holiday season! As robots become pervasive fixtures in our society, it's frightening to know that few laws exist to govern their use.
For now, most drones outside of military drones are remote controlled by humans. However, automated drones do exist and scientists are working on developing artificial intelligence to a point where drones and other robots will not only execute our commands but also issue their own. This raises so many questions that we have yet to seriously discuss in our legislative sessions at both the state and federal level. Furthermore, what about the rights of private litigants? We already see drones flying across property boundaries carrying cameras. Are we going to lock up every mischievous teenager when Erin Andrews peephole peering becomes a post-homework ritual?
It's time we realize that our legal system has little to no precedent and is completely devoid of black letter law governing robots. In fact, if you Google robot law, you will find Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics. It's a literary reference from a science fiction story called Runaround that was published in 1942. The laws are: "A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm, 2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law, 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws." That's about it folks. Robots: obey us and don't injure us, even if it's necessary for your own survival and we will consider you law abiding citizens. Thanks! Love, the USA. I think the only one dumb enough to abide by that is Rosie the Robot. "Done vacuuming Mr. J, I will self-detonate now."
Now, call me futuristic but what if one day a robot does kill a man? Is it's owner brought up on murder charges or merely an accomplice? What if an industrial robot injures his coworker in a factory? Does that trigger a workman's comp claim? What if a self-driving car runs over someone? Are Google execs the ones on trial? And, what happens when one day robots have a mind of their own? Do their creators bear any responsibility? The FBI bust of mad scientists across the country will make the Enron indictments look like a cocktail gathering. While many of the above considerations lie far in the future, keep in mind that we will soon have about a million more drones set to fly in our skies and our rules are still skeletal, vague and in many cases non-existent. So gear up Luke Skywalker because virtual reality may be a profoundly prophetic paradox.