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Image: US Air Force photo by Peter Borys, public domain

Aviation

Drones Are Great, But We Have To Actually Deal With Downsides

As I’ve pointed out before, small UAS (drones) are a net environmental good. They bring us electric aviation now for any application that doesn’t require a person be on board, and displace flights that would have occurred with fossil fuels. They also save lives, so that’s something any moral person would want to see more of. But we also have to deal with downsides. Like any tool, drones can be misused when the wrong hands are at the controls. Spying and surveillance, harassment, terrorism, and warfare are all possible, even with the cheapest of consumer drones.

Some people would rather throw the baby out with the bathwater than deal with downsides, though. They can easily imagine a time when there weren’t drones, so they’d like to just go back to that. Some cities try to ban drones completely, even for licensed remote pilots. Others try to make it difficult or next to impossible by banning takeoff and landing on public property and most private property. Texas even has a statewide prohibition on flying near critical infrastructure without the infrastructure’s owner giving you written permission (this is something that I feel Elon Musk and SpaceX have abused by defining “critical infrastructure” very broadly).

In other cases, police and citizens just harass and even sometimes attack drone operators who are following the law and aren’t up to no good. Police in some cities are far better than others, and that’s getting better as training and awareness improves. Private citizens, on the other hand, might attack a drone operator just about anywhere. It’s happened to me on several occasions, so I started openly carrying a full-sized service pistol when I fly and it hasn’t happened since. But many people don’t want to carry a gun, or live where carrying a gun like that is illegal, so that’s really not the answer to this problem.

The problem with restricting, harassing, or attacking drone operators to get them to go away is that we miss out on the potential benefits. In the case of SpaceX, one drone operator switched to hiring a manned aircraft to get aerial imagery of the company’s Boca Chica facility. The images were still obtained, but now with aircraft emissions instead of a clean battery-electric flight. Lives that would have otherwise been saved, extra money spent, and economic losses all add up when we react like neo-Luddites to new technologies.

Instead of taking the lazy way out and reaching for the “ban hammer,” we need to actually deal with the downsides.

Regulations For Drones Should Be Easy To Comply With

Obviously there is room for reasonable regulation where it’s needed. Manned aircraft, cars, and even bicycles have to follow rules to stay out of trouble. Drones need to be kept away from places like airport runways, for example. Commercial drone operators are expected to know how to read government maps like this one to pass the test, for example:

That may seem unreasonable, as it looks complex and awful on the surface, but the FAA and private vendors they work with have made it a lot easier. Apps like Aloft not only simplify the map to that which concerns drones, but they also give you the ability to ask permission to fly in many restricted areas.

It’s still not a perfect system, as there are many nonsensical restricted areas (for example, old military bases that were sold off decades ago are sometimes off limits), but it’s clear that government and industry have worked together to make compliance easy instead of difficult-to-impossible. This encourages people to do things right instead of trying to fly under the radar.

Property Owners Need To Be Realistic When They Deal With Downsides

I know that for some people, the mere presence of a drone near their house is cause for alarm. They sometimes think they’re the most interesting people around, so somebody must be trying to spy on them. So, they run out of the house (sometimes drunk and in boxer shorts) to confront those no good pedophiles, perverts, and terrorists. But, when they find the person at the controls, it turns out that their neighbor is selling their house and the drone operator is getting photos for the real estate agent.

So in many cases, the key is to just accept that drones will be seen in the sky from time to time, and that it’s almost always nothing to worry about.

When there is a sensitive facility, this idea can’t completely go out the window. Yes, you may be able to get a law or regulation passed to ban drones over your facility, but that doesn’t mean that the skies over it will actually be free of drones. Sometimes, an innocent but ignorant person might not know the law. For example, some kid might fly a toy drone overhead. Responding to that with overwhelming force is not only wasteful of resources, but bad for community relations.

Also, it’s important to keep in mind that bad people with bad intentions won’t be dissuaded by a law. If they want to use a drone to spy on military or police, drop bombs, or worse, they’re not going to care about some FAA fine or state law violation. They’re already committed to breaking the law, and will continue to do so.

Instead of, or in addition to policy solutions, practical solutions must also be implemented. Concealing important things or putting them indoors is one way to prevent problems. Camouflage is another. The real key is to try to put yourself in the bad guys’ shoes and figure out how they’d hurt you with a drone, and then take measures to reduce that risk. Here’s a video that gives some ideas!

Featured image: A C-17 Globemaster from the 89th Airlift Squadron, Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio can be seen in the background coming in for a landing at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, N.Y. on February 10, 2021. A No Drone Zone sign on the outside perimeter fence of the base is a reminder that the area is restricted airspace. (US Air Force photo by Peter Borys, public domain). The appearance of US Department of Defense (DOD) visual information does not imply or constitute DOD endorsement.

 

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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to explore the Southwest US with her partner, kids, and animals. Follow her on Twitter for her latest articles and other random things: https://twitter.com/JenniferSensiba

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