When most people think of drones, they picture unmanned military-grade aircraft flying spying sorties somewhere over the Middle East. Sci-fi fans may think of the nefarious HK-drones operated by Skynet in the Terminator films. Either way, for most of us, our initial reaction to the "D" word, and the burgeoning presence of commercial and non-military drones, is to recoil from something that seems to threaten our privacy (whatever that means these days).
Let's take a different tack. Instead of reflexively hitting our "privacy pause button," let's embrace drone technology while giving careful consideration to why and how we should protect what's left of our privacy that we haven't relinquished. What is the "privacy" that we want to protect, and how should we go about protecting it? Yes, we all want to be secure and free from intrusion in our homes, businesses, backyards and other places traditionally held to be private. But we should not let all the hype about how drones are sure to ruin our privacy drown out our ability to see the very real benefits they have to offer.
By all accounts, drone technology is relatively inexpensive. Putting to one side how law enforcement may use drones, consider the following:
- Search and Rescue -- identifying survivors of natural disasters, and assessing damage and ground conditions while minimizing risk to first responders.
- Agriculture -- tracking livestock, inspecting crops for blight or insect invasion, and monitoring soil conditions.
- Transportation and Utilities -- inspecting freight trains, railroad tracks, pipelines and power lines.
- Security -- monitoring borders, ports, refineries, industrial sites, sport complexes, stadiums, entertainment venues, and college and university campuses.
- Fire Fighting -- determining different types of fires (for example chemical vs. brush fires) and guiding victims out of dangerous conditions.
While this list is an impressive start, there is little doubt that drone technology will produce highly innovative commercial applications. The question that remains is how the general public will react ahead of that innovation.
In many ways, the seemingly furious debate over drones is yet another reaction to the pace at which technology washes over us. There is no doubt that drones raise legitimate legal issues, but it's just too easy to let our "privacy reflex" dominate and overwhelm the discussion. The challenge of any democracy is to embrace the promise of technology while preserving our basic freedoms. The clear and present danger isn't the proliferation of drones, but any inability that we may have to find the right mixture of progress and privacy.