By D. Damon Willens
Ten years ago, if someone had mentioned the word “drones,” one would have thought about far-away wars and unmanned aircraft firing missiles at unsuspecting targets. Yet only a few years later, drones have become a part of everyday life for millions of people. Hobbyists, commercial users and government agencies have expanded the use of drones exponentially as technology has made them affordable for the average person and governmental budget.
Back in the “Wild West” days of 2015, when drone laws were still in their infancy and people were not used to seeing drones flying over their neighborhoods, there was a strong push by state and local governments to pass their own drone laws to combat what was perceived as a privacy and safety threat. Some of these laws were well-intentioned but overly restrictive, and many arguably violated the FAA’s authority over airspace (a debate that has not yet been resolved). However, as the drone industry has matured and we have seen that drones can be used safely and responsibly, some of the negative publicity surrounding drones has waned. The concerns of drone mid-air collisions and “Big Brother” spying on citizens have been shown to be more hype than reality.
What uses of drones should we anticipate in the next decade? Certainly, first responders have been on the cutting edge of governmental drone use. Law enforcement agencies, with community input for their policies, use drones to catch fleeing felons, take crime-scene photos, and conduct traffic accident investigations, while keeping officers out of harm’s way. Fire departments use infrared-equipped drones to monitor brush fires and search for lost hikers. Lifeguards watch for sharks near surfers and drop buoys to swimmers in distress. First responders often use drones after natural disasters to drop medical supplies and food to isolated victims, and quickly locate otherwise inaccessible areas.
Other governmental uses of drones include construction and traffic management, building and utility inspections, surveying engineering sites and collecting geographical information system (GIS) data for mapping. The City of Torrance has used drones to monitor its coyote population. These uses save manpower and reduce risk of injury to workers arising from climbing poles, ladders and roofs. Drones are increasingly being used to augment or replace helicopters, at a savings of thousands of dollars per hour. Even the most basic consumer drones can now provide stunning high-definition imagery.
While many people are concerned about privacy issues, such concerns can be greatly mitigated by carefully tailored regulations and policies regarding the use and retention of drone photos and video. “Paparazzi” and “invasion of privacy” laws in many states, including California, limit these intrusions on private individuals and provide private rights of action. The Fourth Amendment and state and local restrictions on law enforcement use of drones greatly minimize the risk of improper surveillance and “weaponization.”
What about drone package deliveries? The technology is improving and several companies, including Amazon and Wing, are testing drone deliveries in coordination with the FAA. However, until there is more societal and governmental support, it is unlikely we will see Amazon drones crisscrossing the skies above our homes.
As our regulatory structure catches up to technological advances, we can expect drones to become more ubiquitous, but in a way that balances the benefits with privacy and safety concerns. •
D. Damon Willens is the owner of Blue Line Drones, a consulting firm which assists first responders and other government agencies in creating and operating drone programs. Willens is an attorney who specializes in drone law and an LAPD reserve police officer with experience in law enforcement drone operations