You might think of anti-drone groups as extremists that stay awake at night in fear of an automated flying vessel peering into their windows. You’d be wrong.
I recently spoke with Code Pink, a peace activist group with strong opinions against the use of drones in war, and Drone Shield, a company that sells drone detection devices to protect privacy, and was surprised by how open-minded they actually were about drones in general.
“There are certainly lots of legitimate potential commercial, humanitarian, and law enforcement uses of drones. They are already being used at national borders to stop drugs and illegal crossings,” Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin told me. “Humanitarian groups will use them more and more for tracking wildlife, stopping illegal logging or whaling, surveilling war zones. Farmers seem very keen to use them, as do weathermen and real estate agents, and delivery services.”
She is concerned with the use of drones to invade privacy and the use of weaponized drones—how drones could be used against someone by, say, jealous ex-boyfriends, paranoid neighbors, and business competitors. But she’s not blind to UAVs’ benefits. As with any burgeoning technology, concern over the potential abuse of that technology is the major conflict.
Benjamin sat behind Secretary of State John Kerry during a House Foreign Affairs Committee last September with her hands literally painted red while he made the case for military operations in Syria. She believes the US has blood on its hands.
“Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA?” she yelled to President Obama during a speech on drones at the National Defense University last May. Code Pink has been referred to by some groups as on the more extreme end of anti-drone sentiment, but even they aren’t pushing to ban drones completely.
“Many states are passing legislation restricting drone use. I think we should look at the best ones, and get similar legislation passed nationally,” Benjamin said.
Brian Hearing, the co-founder of Drone Shield, also highlighted legislation as an issue. “One big fear is that the use of drones will be over-regulated by emerging FAA guidelines, or legislatively—lots of local laws being passed are restricting their use,” he said. “Certainly for traffic tracking, police surveillance, and agriculture use, [drones] will be very effective … I personally think the benefits of drones will outweigh their detriments. I’m all for them, and really hope the FAA gets their act together quickly.”
In fact, Hearing uses commercial drones for his personal entertainment. He went on to tell me about his exploits with quadcopters, including flying them over a prison conference reception that he was kicked out of. He said he regrets being seen as an anti-drone figure.
In the press, the narrative is starting to change. Weaponized unmanned aircraft and drones that can see through your walls to spy on you are terrifying concepts. But painting stories of fear, instead of drones’ potential benefits to society, isn’t telling the whole story.
Some companies in the US, like Frog Design, are creating concepts of drones that could water your corn fields, help firefighters see who’s in a burning building, and escort you on a bicycle ride for safety.
Drones can take many forms. For some activists, the main issue is that people don’t want to lose any more privacy than they already have. Soon, you could be watering your garden, driving on the highway, or even looking out your bathroom window and see a drone lurking in the distance or very nearby. That’s going too far, they argue.
“It’s a little frustrating because there isn’t much people can legally do about them: You can’t shoot them down, jam them, or anything—they are someone else’s property in a public location, even though that might be over your backyard,” said Hearing.
“We think the first step is to at least know they’re there,” he continued. “You could potentially call the cops if they were violating privacy … I would like to see the legal definition of private airspace increased to something where it would be difficult to get good video/photography, i.e. a few hundred feet up.”
As with every terrifying new technology, there is room for its appropriate usage, but room for improvement too.