The drone dilemma

A drone in flight

(Mesa County Sheriff's Unmanned Operations Team/AP Photo)

There are some deadlines coming up on the use of drones.  John Watson offers a commentary.

When you first heard about drones it was probably in the context of the war on terror. But the possible consequences of the use of drones here at home could be something to be concerned about. 

We see them and certainly hear about them more these days. Are they truly safe?  And what are they looking at? 

In the not too distant future, you may be able to get your mail delivered on your doorsteps by a drone. A pizza delivery or grocery order isn’t out of the question. Published reports tell us that a Homeland Security panel of representatives from different state agencies is drafting new state rules for these drones.

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“The News Journal” reported that Delaware Homeland Security Advisory Council Members have worked through rough drafts of regulations for state agency use of the drones. They recently included a summary of current limits of both private and commercial operations of the devices. The reasons for forming the committee was to examine the issue focusing on how the bad guys will be using it.

Criminal types of all kinds come to my mind. Dwayne Day, DelDot homeland security planner, said technology and markets for making and using drones are moving faster than regulations. He pointed out that drones have been seen buzzing around the University of Delaware campus, showing that the price of even the most sophisticated popular video-equipped rigs only cost $1,000.

That’s within the reach of some students as well as researchers and businesses he said. The Georgetown campus of Delaware Technical and Community College plans two-day drone flight school starting in October. Businessman T.J. Redefer will be the instructor. His two drones are very busy with no-charge activities for charitable groups.

We are told that drone flights for any commercial moneymaking purpose are banned outside of Alaska by the Federal Aviation Administration.  A draft of FAA rules for commercial use of small drones are due for release in November. Among the restrictions, hobbyists and model makers are limited to 55 pound or lighter machines. They can only fly below 400 feet and within the line of sight of the operator. Also, it can only travel five miles from any airport. That seems like a solid idea. Keep the drones as low as possible and out of the path of commercial airline flights. 

Although commercial uses are banned, drone operators are ignoring or skirting the law for everything we are told from real estate surveys, or aerial photography for private detective work, to an array of advertising schemes.

I’m wondering about flying drones in Air Force formation like we see at air shows. We could really have a problem if that happens. If it’s done in a restricted area, out of the way of commercial flights, I think it would be great.

But that’s in the future. And the future may also bring a time when camera loaded drones could violate existing laws on trespassing and invasion of privacy.

Day is quoted as saying “We need to look at the rules of the road and make sure we are not hindering the commercial growth of it here in the state, but making sure UAV’s (unmanned air vehicles) are used safely. Used by public agencies to protect the citizens of Delaware and make sure citizens aren’t abusing them, and making sure that privacy concerns are looked at.”

Redefer said he has been flying radio controlled aircraft since he was a child, something many of us have also done. I know I did. And Redefer said he wants to be on the “front lines” as technology emerges and matures. 

All of that leaves one thing out I mentioned earlier. Suppose some camera outfitted drones are programmed and outfitted with all kinds of weaponry taking the place of handguns by the criminal community? Then what?

One of the problems with our speedy technological development is that it’s often ahead of any kind of controls. The federal government is in full control of our military drones, giving ISIS nightmares on the battlefield. Now it’s time for the federal government to do the same with our homeland.

 John Watson is a longtime observer of events in Delaware from his perch as a radio talk show host. Email John:

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