Drone technology has been growing by leaps and bounds over the past decade, a unique convergence of kids’ toys and military-grade surveillance equipment that is inexorably reaching into other aspects of our lives, filling in the gaps between those extremes. And as it develops, we are already seeing signs that this could signify another quantum shift in the impact of technology in our everyday lives.
Drones are radio-operated mobile devices, designed to go where people often cannot go, to provide a platform to gather information or to execute some task formerly done by people or larger technology (like piloted aircraft or submarines). It’s obvious why this technology was co-opted by military organizations as soon as it was practical, and it has already saved countless lives and (probably) billions of dollars in its use. The kids got things like radio-controlled helicopters, the ones you see teenage salespeople in shopping malls flying around the patrons’ heads, putting money in toymakers’ pockets. And all was fine and good… until someone who wasn’t in the military realized that some drones could be used for activities other than floating around the room or over your roof.
The realization that civilians were attaching cameras to over-the-counter drones (some come with their own video cameras) and experimenting to see what kind of mischief they could get into, struck most people with the impact of finding a camera in your bathroom. Simultaneously you had regular people crowing about the ability to cruise over the next door hot chick’s backyard to catch her sunbathing… and people decrying skies suddenly filled with cameras watching their backyards and bedroom windows, reporting back to who-knows-who. States have already had to pass laws forbidding civilians from shooting down drones that fly over their properties, and laws are being enacted or amended to restrict the places civilian drones are to go.
And though there’s no sign of it yet, there’s the possibility that commercial entities may put drones to use, watching potential customers or targeting ads to people on the street or in their neighborhood. Imagine a drone floating down over your cookout, observing how brown your grass is and recommending a few Scotts products to green up your lawn. Flying local billboards or remote audiocasts are not outside of the realm of possibility.
But drones serve a good purpose, and not just for the military: Security and law enforcement agencies can use drones to keep an eye on places where they can’t put people (or enough people). Police departments that can’t afford expensive tools like helicopters are now using drones for suspect surveillance and tracking, for crime scene overhead views and for search and rescue operations. Plainly, drones are useful and valuable pieces of technology that we should take every advantage of.
So we have a great tool in the right hands, that is also proving to be a nuisance at best, or a danger at worst, in the wrong hands. (If you don’t think a civilian drone is a danger, imagine one being clumsily piloted through a window, falling on an unknowing civilian—as I’ve seen happen in those shopping malls—or bouncing off of a car windshield in traffic… one of these mishaps was depicted in my novel Sarcology.) Civilians need security and protection… but from their fellow citizens as well as criminals.
This puts us in a similar situation as we found ourselves in when the Global Positioning System (GPS) was put in place by the military. Also a great tool that could be a danger in the wrong hands, the government was forced to unilaterally decide that GPS had to be regulated outside of military use; that it could be used, but hamstrung to limit the accuracy of a position reading for civilians. Though the act wasn’t popular among civilians, they quickly saw that it did not inconvenience them significantly, and it was still much better than nothing. Not that they could do anything about it, but civilians came to accept the law, and today very little is said about it.
We’re probably looking at similar laws regulating drone use in the U.S. at the civilian end. Tighter restrictions against drone-permissible areas and flight radii can be expected most immediately, followed by regulations on exactly what can be done with a civilian drone, and heavy fines established for violating those rules. Civilian-owned drones may have to adopt visual standards, such as paint schemes or flashing lights, to make sure they are plainly in view and identifiable as non-government devices. Drone owners may find themselves forbidden to fly a drone off of their own property, or drones may be preset with a distance limit which, when exceeded, will return the drone to its origin point. Recording equipment, cameras or other technology, may be tightly regulated, possibly licensed with local government right to inspect at will any device.
In addition to regulation, technology is already being deployed to monitor and track the drones. Recently a man using a drone to hover over a kids’ soccer game was rousted from his home by authorities, who tracked the drone signal back to his home. Building-mounted cameras and other surveillance equipment may aid law enforcement’s ability to detect a drone, determine if its use strays outside of the law, and locate and identify its owner before the drone has even had a chance to land.
At the lighter end, the existence of drones (or widespread belief that drones are out there) may result in a commercial resurgence in heavier window dressings: Camera-blocking curtains, shades, blinds and opaque films may all see a popularity spurt by those seeking to avoid drone-spying into their homes.
All of this may take some of the fun out of drone flight… but it will serve to allow individuals to enjoy some aspect of the drone technology that keeps us safe and secure, without having to shut it away from civilians altogether.
Sarcology depicts a very realistic and possible future of drone use in America… check it out today.