Global Ethics Corner: How Should Domestic Drones Be Regulated?

Jul 6, 2012

Americans are used to hearing about drones being used in Pakistan and Yemen, but they are increasingly being deployed domestically. With organizations from NASA to community colleges flying unmanned aerial vehicles in the U.S., what is the best way to regulate this technology?

The American public has gotten used to hearing about drones in war.

From battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan to counterterrorism operations in Yemen and Somalia, these remote-controlled, unmanned aerial vehicles have become a regular feature of modern warfare.

But recently, local fire and police departments have also received permission to fly unmanned drones carrying sophisticated surveillance equipment over American soil.

The Federal Aviation Administration has announced that it will grant permits to public safety agencies that can demonstrate their ability to safely operate drones of up to 25 pounds.

Those authorized to fly unmanned vehicles range from the obvious (like NASA and the FBI), to the not-so-obvious (like the U.S. Forest Service and the Honeywell Corporation), to the downright strange (Eastern Gateway Community College in Steubenville, Ohio).

Perhaps the most remote drone owner is Otter Tail County, Minnesota, located 60 miles southeast of Fargo, North Dakota, with a population of 57,000 people.

Politicians on the left and right sides of the aisle have expressed concerns about privacy and fears that drones could be hacked and hijacked by terrorists. They're calling for strict regulation of domestic drone use.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group representing drone manufacturers, has released a code of conduct for the industry. It's a set of guidelines and recommendations for safe, non-intrusive operations of unmanned aircraft.

These guidelines call on agencies and drone operators to respect the privacy of individuals, to comply with all laws, and to hold themselves to a high professional and ethical standard.

What do you think: Is a voluntary code of ethics enough to calm the fears of civil libertarians and privacy rights activists?

Will it help guarantee drones won't be used to spy on American citizens?

For more information see

Brian Bennett, "Police departments wait for FAA clearance to fly drones," Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2012

Alan Levin, "Drones Up to 25 Pounds Allowed for U.S. Safety Agencies," Bloomberg, May 14, 2012

Jessica Leavenworth, "UConn Drone Just For Tests, Professor Says," Hartford Courant, April 24, 2012

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Jennifer Lynch, "FAA Releases Lists of Drone Certificates—Many Questions Left Unanswered," Electronic Frontier Foundation, April 19, 2012

John Roberts, "EXCLUSIVE: Drones vulnerable to terrorist hijacking, researchers say," FoxNews.com, June 25, 2012

Bob Brewin, "What Are They Going to Do With a Drone in Otter Tail County?" Nextgov, April 20, 2012

Photo Credits in Order of Appearance: Brian Ferguson/U.S. Air Force Grant Larson/The California National Guard PaulSteinJC U.S. Government NASA/Tony Landis AtelMedia Scott Backstrom Jim Greenhill/ The National Guard Laura K. Smith/isafmedia Shane A. Cuomo/Official U.S. Air Force Syracuse Peace Council jamesdale10

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