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Where do you see drones being used in the future and are there any uses that should be restricted?

Discussion Leader: 
Andrew “Boomer” Smith, Ph.D
Posted Date: 11/02/2015

Drones are increasingly used in military and personal applications. While there are some regulations around personal use, there are ongoing discussions about future use and applications for this technology; for example, recent regulation issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation requires the registration of all unmanned aircrafts. 

Air Force officials are seeking volunteers for future training classes to produce operators of the MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt)


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Boomer Smith's picture

Hi, I'm Boomer Smith and will be facilitating this week's discussion. Drones, unmanned aerial systems (UAS)or whatever we choose to call them are becoming a part of everyday life, already performing a number of commercial, scientific, security and recreational functions. The technology is developing faster than measures to regulate it. For this week's discussion, and considering the HDIAC's mission, I suggest we try to tackle, at a minimum, these points:
- Applications: what applications of UAS' should have priority for homeland defense and security? What technologies should have priority for development to perform those applications?
- Regulation seems to be needed to ensure, among other things, safety and privacy in UAS operation. What equities need to be considered as regulation is developed? - for example, commercial use, law enforcement, private use, aviation safety? Are these being adequately represented in the policy debate. In the USA, is the FAA moving fast enough to enable optimal use of this UAS?
- Investment and development: is there a need for more investment in UAS development? Is there a role for government investment? What development should have priority?

I'm sure our discussion will range more widely than these ideas, but I hope they provide a start. I look forward to your comments!


As UAV technology becomes more sophisticated and more publically available, the need for regulatory action involving commercial use of UAVs arises. Altitude perimeters should top the list of concerns, as flight interference with aircraft could have catastrophic results. Regulating a range of altitude would help alleviate collision. 

Boomer Smith's picture

Prescribed altitudes are certainly a well-proven means of achieving aircraft separation, but they rely on several things, among them crew training and, in some cases, communication. These add to the overhead of UAV operations. Does this mean that regulation of UAVs will necessarily add to the costs of operation, perhaps making some applications too costly (or encouraging illegal operations)?

The FAA needs to move quickly to ensure it is meeting the needs of growing UAV use. And while implementing regulations such as altitude restrictions seem to be obvious (and potentially restricting video capture below a certain altitude), these regulations could further affect existing laws. Some people will argue ownership of airspace over their homes to ensure privacy. But, police departments already use manned aerial vehicles for law enforcement activities (such as detecting grow operations using heat sensing helicopters). In addition, restricting image and video capture could affect laws regarding traditional (on the ground) surveillance methods related to public vs. private spaces. In addition, the FAA must also address the delivery portion of the market (for example, Amazon's potential use of drones to deliver products). 

As far as military operations go, UAVs have significant potential in overseas missions. Using drones for surveillance and targeted attacks will potentially save lives and resources. For this reason, further UAV development and research is critical. 

Boomer Smith's picture

Clearly, the FAA has a major role in developing regulation for UAVs, and is under enormous pressure to do so quickly, but is it being asked to regulatre beyond its remit? Historically, the FAA's focus has been aeronautical safety with some attention to societal implications of aviation, such as noise abatement. Should the FAA need to address privacy concerns as well, or are these already covered by other legislation/agencies? Given the potential for UAV operation in the homeland to span a number of regulatory specializations, is there a need for a new agency to bring everything together?

I hadn't given thought to a new agency to pull all the regulation concerns together. That's an interesting idea, which might be worth exploring as UAVs really broaden the FAA's regulating focus. I would argue that while existing laws and regulations cover most privacy and other concerns, UAVs are going to force us to rethink those laws because they are people-centric, not machine focused. 

As far as uses for drones, they appear in the media a lot regarding military use in overseas operations, but another area they are a huge benefit is in disaster situations. Drones can be used for search and rescue operations and may be able help strengthen or replace existing communication infrastructure. These applications are also of critical need.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have historically been used in military applications and the move to a more commercial use raises concerns for proper regulation. As mentioned above, I think it would be beneficial for a new agency to come together to address the wider implications, ranging from privacy to safety, of UAVs in the homeland.
As for the future of military applications, I think investments in micro-UAVs would take the next step in development for better surveillance.

Boomer Smith's picture

It seems that development of military applications is already well funded - even micro-UAVs are already finding their way into capability trials. Are there specific homeland defense and security applications that need attention and investment? Is there a need for some sort of policy to prioritize development, or should the 'market' be allowed to determine where R&D investment goes?

I find it very interesting that UAVs are actually starting to alleviate the need of manpower, especially in the infrastructure realm. I'm seeing more articles that involve the use of UAVs for surveying bridges, pipelines and dams, which I think is a really brilliant idea. Because of the state of the nation's infrastructure, utilizing UAVs for these tasks eliminates virtually any safety risks. Additionally, the cost of sending manpower to perform one safety/security inspection is considerably more expensive than having a UAV perform the inspection, which is why inspections are often infrequent and disregarded. 

For the military, the use of drones will continue to provide soldiers a look into dangerous areas without the same amount of risks. Many UAVs are gaining additional functions that make them more efficient in surveillance, as well as increasing their capabilities to be used as a weapon. Considering that UAVs can be weaponized without too much technical knowledge, they would make versatile improvised explosive devices.

For this reason, regulations will need to be in place. The first one that comes to mind is the extended use of UAV no-fly zones in areas that are potential targets for attacks. Restrictions on flying UAVS in DC, around airports, and other government and military areas would be a good start. Another level of protection would be the inclusion of UAV specific radar in these areas.