By Other Means

A Drone of One’s Own

A Drone of One’s Own

Although I have been a critic of U.S. "targeted killings" policy, I have nothing against drones as such. In fact, I am the proud owner of several drones.

The first drone — a small helicopter — entered my life fortuitously. One day, I opened the front door to see my neighbor across the street merrily piloting a helicopter around the roof of his house. My eight-year-old and I oohed and aahed as he skillfully steered the tiny rotary wing drone with a small remote control, and a few days later, he knocked on the door and presented my daughter with a drone of her own.

Not a weaponized drone, I hasten to add — the little chopper flies around, but that’s it. No payload. And that’s a good thing, since my two children took to the new drone instantly, soon using it to buzz the windows of nearby houses. When I took the controls, the drone made an immediate crash landing, causing significant collateral damage to a flowerpot. The children revoked my drone piloting license.

I ordered the second drone myself, since once one child has a drone, every child needs one. The second drone — purchased from Amazon.com — matched the first, minus the flower-pot induced damage. 

In a retro move, we went on to purchase a fleet of remote control cars to keep the unmanned aerial vehicles company. Then we bought a giant remote-controlled flying goldfish, because why not? Soon the cars, the goldfish, and the helicopters were all active at once, making it difficult to maneuver through the dining room.

But we weren’t done yet. "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction," wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. A room of one’s own is all very well, but when it comes to warding off the importunate demands of domesticity, a drone of one’s own is manifestly better.

Think how pleasant it might be to have an obedient drone (preferably weaponized) hovering nearby at all times! Imagine how this would alter ordinary domestic conversations:

"Honey, I need you to take care of the kids while I work on my column."

"But I was going to watch the game on TV."

"Honey, my Predator drone and I need you to take care of the kids while I work on my column."

Weaponized Predator drones are currently impractical for household use: Buying one would exhaust the children’s college fund, and anyway, my backyard’s not large enough for a runway. For now, I’ve settled for a Roomba. It doesn’t fundamentally alter the domestic balance of power, but at least it does the vacuuming.

As my one-household drone arms race escalates, I started to ask the important question: Tell me how this ends! Leave the remote-controlled cars and the Roomba aside: how many drones can one household own, and at what level of menace, before some tedious law gets in the way? What legal regulations govern the use of unmanned aerial vehicles by private citizens?

Not many, it turns out. The general category of "things that fly but are not birds" is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Thus, just like grown-up airplanes, private UAVs are regulated by the FAA. At the moment, however, the FAA is mostly MIA when it comes to personal UAVs. The only operative guidelines are the FAA’s Model Aircraft Operating Standards, which date back to 1981 and are purely "advisory" in nature. In and of themselves, the standards don’t place any legally enforceable limits on the size or operation of personal drones, but merely suggest that in the interest of "a good neighbor environment," UAV pilots should keep all drones under an altitude of 400 feet, avoid flight in "noise sensitive areas" such as schools, hospitals, and churches, and give right of way to "full scale aircraft."

These standards were designed for hobbyists flying model planes, and despite dramatic technological change since they were first developed, they remain, as best I can tell, the only standards specifically applicable to private, non-commercial UAVs.

There are far more stringent rules governing both government agencies wishing to use UAVs and those who wish to use UAVs for commercial purposes. I had hoped to persuade Foreign Policy magazine to purchase its own large UAV and fly it around Washington trailing a large advertising banner with my name on it, but the FAA prohibits the unauthorized business use of drones. If you want your drone to be part of a money-making enterprise, you’ll need to go through a cumbersome process to gain FAA approval. (This requirement has already been the downfall of some entrepreneurial real estate photographers who used drones to take aerial photos of properties on the market.) Police, the military, and other public agencies must also get FAA approval before using UAVs inside the United States. But you and me and the guy across the street? Our private drone use is currently exempt.

This isn’t to say that you can buy any drone at all: In addition to the limits imposed by your bank account, certain specific technologies and products were developed solely for specific government clients and are currently restricted. The same is true of certain weapons and imaging technologies, which cannot be privately purchased.

But this doesn’t pose much of a limit to the size or potential lethality of your personal drone. The technologies relating to UAVs are no easier to put back into bottles than any other genies, and there’s currently nothing to stop a mayhem-minded citizen from creating his own fairly sophisticated weaponized UAV. You can buy toy drones for under a hundred bucks. Attach a tiny camera and a small remotely controlled explosive charge and you can, at a minimum, cause havoc in your immediate neighborhood. If you’re technologically savvy and you have a bigger budget, you can escalate: Buy a bigger drone, or an even bigger one, and attach legally available weapons, and you’re in excellent shape to start a small armed conflict.

As long as you stick to components that are legal to purchase, there are no apparent legal barriers to creating your own weaponized UAV (though it remains an idiotic and antisocial idea). Using your weaponized drone is another story: All the usual criminal laws apply. So don’t even think about it.

And except in uncontested airspace, small drone wars are not easy to sustain; even sophisticated military drones remain fairly vulnerable to basic anti-aircraft systems. They can be shot down; their computerized control systems can be hacked. This is still more true
for do-it-yourself drones manufactured by even the most malevolent hobbyists.

In this sense, UAVs don’t pose unique new problems. They just offer additional (and often cheaper) ways to pose common old problems. Neighbors who stockpile assault weapons are scary, whether they add drones to the arsenal or not. Those who unlawfully use weapons to intimidate or kill are criminals, whether they do their killing with slingshots or hand-made explosives dropped from personal UAVs. By and large, the same is true of UAVs equipped with surveillance cameras and electronic eavesdropping devices: If the paparazzi are after you, there are already plenty of legal ways for them to make your life miserable. The same goes for your nosy neighbor and for paranoid moms with nanny-cams.

None of this keeps most of us from drone-related freak-outs, of course. In a recent poll, 60 percent of Americans reported concerns that government use of drones would invade their privacy. Incredibly, 47 percent of Americans believe they should have a right to shoot down a drone flying over their property and taking pictures. (My Roomba shows no inclination to go airborne, but just to be safe, I’ve ordered it to stay indoors).

Widespread angst about drones will almost certainly lead to tighter regulation in the next few years. The FAA has been charged by Congress with finding a way to integrate both privately owned and government-owned UAVs into the national airspace by 2015, which will require the agency to develop rules relating to the licensing and use of UAVs. There will likely be more stringent rules for hobbyists as well.

Meanwhile, several states are already considering drone-related legislation, though given FAA preeminence when it comes to regulating airspace, it’s an open question whether states have the legal authority to regulate drones themselves. (Does the airspace at knee-level count as airspace, wonders US News?) Some scholars, such as the University of Washington’s Ryan Calo, even argue that drones may end up being the best thing that ever happened to privacy law. Until recently, it was mostly the left and libertarians who worried about the rise of the surveillance state. Thanks to drones, these anxieties have gone mainstream.

Not all drone uses are nefarious, of course: UAVs also have great potential to be used "for good" — finding missing persons, spotting early signs of impending atrocities, assisting during natural disasters, and so on. Ironically, some journalists are using personally owned surveillance drones to keep an eye on government drone bases. As we move towards a more coherent legal and regulatory regime for UAVs and the behaviors they enable, we’ll need to make sure we preserve the ability to use drones for the public good.

Drones are the new "in thing" in the world of policy-wonkery, too. Consider political science pundit extraordinaire Francis Fukuyama, who is building his own drone (and blogging about it). This is the man who once prophesized "the end of history."

Really, what more do you need to know?