Can we use drones responsibly?

I confess that until very recently, when I thought of drones, I thought of two things. The first, of course, is the modern weapon of war, the device from which death can be brought from above and across thousands of miles; the drone strikes we see on the news and the things that trouble at least some of us in our sleep. The second is the commercial drone industry, perhaps most exemplified by Amazon’s proposal for drone deliveries, which feels intensely gimmicky and awful, but speaks to the demand for the right now and immediate satisfaction.

Both of these technologies feel invasive, especially the first, for obvious reasons. I’m troubled about restrictions on freedom of movement and privacy, I am opposed to surveillance, I believe that technology shouldn’t be used to stalk people. I am deeply troubled by drone warfare in particular, which targets the innocent, hurts civilians, and creates a framework that damages even its own pilots. Like all new military technologies, the drone comes with a high and sometimes hidden cost.

But my perspective on drones has been shifting in recent months as I’ve been exposed to other uses of them, and I’m being forced to ask myself some complicated questions about drones. There was a point, not too long ago, when I would have opposed them across the board, quite strenuously. I would have supported no-fly rules for zones and I would have questioned their applications. But that’s not the case anymore, and I owe that to a number of influences.

The first is drone photography, which is absolutely amazing. If you haven’t had a chance to seek out photographers who work with drones, I highly recommend it. Many work with extremely high resolution cameras to generate sweeping aerial views with stunning results, at a fraction of the cost (and disruption) of using helicopters and light aircraft. Some views are in fact only possible with drones, while in other cases, the drone has made this kind of aerial photography more financially accessible.

I am a huge fan of art. I am also aware that producing art can be expensive. In the case of photography, the entry-level costs for even mid-range cameras are extremely high, and those who want to get deeply invested can expect to pay thousands of dollars for their cameras — before lenses and accompanying equipment. For photographers who want to expand their perspective and the range of their work, aerial photography can be a fantastic tool. Drones make that possible, often at a very accessible pricepoint. Which is a good thing.

I’ve also been reading a number of studies lately which have relied on drones for amazing scientific finds and contributions to existing research. The world is a big place, one that’s extremely difficult to cover inch by inch. Some regions are physically hostile and grueling to explore on the ground, with obstacles like heavy tree cover that make it functionally impossible to use satellite and balloon photography. Drones provide another avenue of exploration, allowing research teams to get a new angle on subjects of interest, which is incredibly valuable.

Science is important for intrinsic reasons, and if drones were being used in pure research and generating results, that would be fantastic. But they’re also providing insight into things like climate change and shifts in communities, which has real-world implications that are very important to explore. Drones are becoming a very useful tool in the scientific library, and the more researchers use them, the more they learn about how they can be applied to various projects. They can carry not just cameras, but instrumentation, which is also incredibly valuable for measurements like temperature and wind speed.

I’ve learned that drones are incredibly nuanced, which makes my original position on them unsustainable. While I still oppose their use in warfare — and always will — I am less certain about blanket bans on drones, because of what they have to offer us socially. Not all technologies are evil, as we know, and those that are used to commit evil can also be used for good. Radiation can kill — but it can also be integral to treatment of a patient’s cancer.

This means that we need to have a realistic conversation, though, about how to use drones responsibly. Because there are some significant concerns when it comes to drone deployment and privacy as well as security. With photography, for example, restricting flights is reasonable to protect expectations of privacy; if you’re on your 400 acre ranch sunbathing in the nude, you hardly expect a drone to zoom by and take some snaps. Likewise, celebrities and public figures plagued by the paparazzi have a lot to lose if drone photography isn’t well-regulated. In the sciences, there are similar concerns about privacy, integrity of research, and image processing that need to be considered when studies are developed and subjected to review.

If we move beyond the kneejerk response to drones, we can have a coherent conversation about how to use them safely and responsibly. That’s a conversation worth having, because drones most definitely aren’t going away. Numerous firms have invested too heavily in the technology to give up, and they’ve become too woven into numerous aspects of our lives. We’re past the ‘should they or shouldn’t they’ stage and on to the ‘how they,’ and we owe it to future generations to take this seriously. Because if we don’t regulate drones, yes, they are going to be a disaster, and someone else will be picking up the pieces.

Image: Drone, David Rodriguez Martin, Flickr