Drones have been given a bad name. Mention the word drone and most people will automatically think of a Predator launching Hellfire missiles to obliterate a target. Drone use at this point is primarily military and their role in the killing of people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia has been extremely controversial in some circles. Some say the attacks are illegal assassinations and others say those killed are terrorists and are therefore legitimate targets.
Without delving into the merits or ethics of using drones to launch attacks, there are many other uses for drones that are being summarily dismissed by many people based on the belief that drones would violate privacy or be launching Hellfire missiles here in the United States.
Here in Oklahoma, Governor Fallin formed the Governor’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Council with a goal of lobbying for commercial drone test sites in Oklahoma and luring more military contractors to the state. Oklahoma’s Secretary of Science and Technology, Stephen McKeever, has said that Oklahoma is already home to around 15 companies servicing the UAV industry. Ben Kimbro is the owner of one of these companies, Tactical Electronics in Broken Arrow and he sits on the Governor’s council. Kimbro said that UAV research would pour in tens of millions of dollars into the Oklahoma economy.
Clearly, domestic use of UAV’s will be an economic boon for any state aggressively seeking to host this burgeoning industry. Governor Fallin’s efforts to ensure Oklahoma plays a vital role in that industry is just another example of why Oklahoma has one of the leading state economies in the nation.
But not everyone is welcoming drones to Oklahoma with open arms. A Republican State Representative, Paul Wesselhoft, teamed up with the ACLU to draft legislation that would require law enforcement to get a warrant before using drones for surveillance purposes and prohibits the state from outfitting drones with weapons. This is ridiculous. Does Wesselhoft believe the Oklahoma City Police Department should get a warrant before putting their helicopter in the air?
Wesselhoft’s legislation, House Bill 1556, has been tabled for this session and will be held over pending a likely interim study on privacy issues related to drones. Wesselhoft said, “We have to keep in mind that these technologies have the very real potential to seriously erode privacy rights.” Michael Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said, ”We believe that your Fourth Amendment rights are protected. There are laws in place for what you can and cannot do with a drone.”
Toscano also provided figures showing there are nearly 19,000 law enforcement entities in the United States, of which only about 300 currently have aerial surveillance capabilities. Helicopters cost about $1,500 an hour to operate, but drones cost less than $50 an hour, meaning a lot of smaller departments would be able to afford the technology. Searching for missing persons, monitoring traffic conditions, weather spotting and security at public events are just a few of the benefits provided by drones.
Examining privacy issues relating to drone use would be a prudent thing to do as the legalities of new technologies are impossible to legislate ahead of the technology. But making the use of drones illegal where other surveillance techniques have always been legal is overreaching and laws such as HB1556 are not likely to survive even the first challenge in court. The U.S. Supreme Court declared in U.S. v. Causby, 1946, that navigable airspace is a “public highway.” This ruling and others hold that Americans should have no expectation of privacy in publicly viewable spaces. Any part of your land visible from a police helicopter or even something such as Google Earth should not be illegal for viewing by drones.
With the drone industry just beginning to take off (!) here in the U.S. Governor Fallin has seen the potential economic benefits to our state and has taken steps to make Oklahoma one of the leading states for UAV technology. Rep. Wesselhoft said, “We are not anti-technology. We are not anti-drones.” If that’s true he might want to rethink teaming up with the ACLU and sending the wrong message to the UAV industry about Oklahoma.
Regardless of which state is the leader in the UAV industry, unmanned aerial vehicles are coming to the sky near you. In a few years there will probably be thousands of them all over the country. If the police ever put Hellfire missiles on their drones I’d start worrying. But until that happens I believe we already have laws in place to protect our privacy and seeing drones above my city won’t bother me at all. Maybe it’ll keep the ACLU indoors.