“Drones are here to stay, and to me that's a very good thing.”
Presenting at SXSW Interactive—where just days before the Austin Police Department had banned all drones from flying in the skies above the festival—Lisa Ellman spoke enthusiastically about the benefits that drones bring and how industry and government can satisfy those who are concerned about drones encroaching on personal privacy.
Ellman—who helped craft Obama administration policies on the use of drones in the United States—presented the positives and the negatives, from what she sees as smart and nonsensical regulation as well as the worthy and concerning usages of drones.
“When I first started working for President Obama, drones were just a blip on the radar,” Ellman said. “Now they are everywhere. They are the present and are quickly becoming the future. I believe the key to good policy making in this area ... is poli-vation—policy makers and innovators working together.”
Referring to the machines as “smartphones in the sky,” Ellman said that the uses for drones range from toys to tools of war, and that they can be used for fun, safety, and technology that makes life better. Among the possible positive functions, she mentioned a drone’s potential to deliver SXSW badges to attendees with the use of facial recognition technology, help farmers survey and dust their crops, film movies from high and varying vantage points, deliver beer, or drop medications in rural areas. Disney, for example, is interested in using drones to replace fireworks in its theme parks; the NFL, meanwhile, has reportedly considered using drones to do things like take footballs to midfield.
But, Ellman said, while America leads the world in producing the technology, it follows in areas of implementation. In Japan, 85 percent of crop dusting is done by drones, she said. “Drones will help America hold on to our competitive advantage."
Despite all the benefits that drones can offer, many Americans are wary of the flying machines’ ability to survey areas of life that have been private for so long. Drones are often equipped with cameras and can photograph anything from homes to employees skipping work to shop at the mall. Ellman explained the concerns as relating to “the notion that our home is our castle, that we ought to have control over our own personal information ... that we all need time alone.”
But, she said, the modern concept of privacy is evolving. “We live in an increasingly connected world. What this means for our nation’s privacy policies, we are just starting to learn about now.” History tells us that people have commonly been fearful of innovation. When the camera was first invented, Ellman said, we worried others would take our picture without our consent; when the postal service was founded, we worried people would read our mail. “It makes sense that, decades later, we worry that drones will be used to spy on us,” said Ellman, who noted that her own father worried that drones could enable competitors to snoop on his backyard engineering projects. Such concerns raise legitimate questions, she said, such as how do we know who’s watching us, who owns the drone, and where images live and for how long?
Ellman thinks that all of these valid points must be weighed with the potential for drones to do good in the world. And here’s where policy comes in to enable the machines to perform such beneficial functions while also addressing the privacy concerns. Noting that commercial use of drones will likely be legal in a few years as Congress is working to integrate drones into federal airspace, Ellman said that there is also “no shortage of legislation from all levels of government aimed at limiting use of drones in the name of privacy.” Some policy is smart and some isn’t, she said, referring to a proposed Oklahoma law that would allow private citizens to shoot down drones that come onto their property.
When crafting legislation, Ellman said it’s important that policymakers embrace the glories of drone technology while also avoiding the duplication of laws that are already protecting the public. “It’s likely that complete bans on drone use are overbroad because they ignore the benefits,” she said. “We must ask ourselves, ‘Are drones uniquely troublesome in certain ways?’ But we must also ask, ‘What laws and policies are already in place that protect us?’” Ellman thinks that legislation on drone use without warrants is duplicative because of 4th Amendment protections already in place and that drone-focused private property laws are duplicative because trespassing laws already exist. “We should take a close look at those and see where there are gaps, but don’t duplicate,” she said.
Looking to the future, Ellman said that she sees property owners having rights to the sky above their homes, much as mineral rights protect below-ground interests such as oil and natural gas. But, these will only go so high, perhaps to about 350 feet above ground, and will have to integrate with federal airspace that begins at 500 feet (more information at noflyzone.org). While Congress works on passing legislation to allow commercial use of drones—which Ellman predicted will be law by “2017 at the latest”—interested commercial parties in the meantime can file a 333 exemption with the Federal Aviation Administration, which has granted about 500 exemptions and will soon be issuing these more quickly, she said. Noise issues are another concern, but the quieter drones become, Ellman pointed out, the more potential they have to silently spy. Another topic that must be addressed, she said, is the fear from laborers such as pilots and delivery people who worry that drones will take their work.
“There are drawbacks,” she said, “but we have to remember that many problems have solutions. Now is the time for all of us to get involved.”
For more information on Lisa Ellman, co-chair of McKenna Long & Aldridge's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Practice Group, go to the firm's website. Ellman's Tedx Talk on drones and privacy is available on YouTube.