This post by Sayan Bhattacharya is a part of the TLF Editorial Board Test 2016.
We live in a world where presence of drones, more formally known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, are owned by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to high school kids who put them to several new non-military uses previously unimaginable. We live in a world where drones are conceptualized to do something as simple as delivery of items by Amazon to your doorstep to delivering radioactive vials to the office of the Japanese Prime Minister, from monitoring crops to capturing heart stopping footages which you would see circulating on social media platforms. In a world where these gadgets have flown uncomfortably close to US airspaces as many as 650 times, been used to smuggle contraband into prison cells, used to take pictures of inner premises of temples in India which are prohibited, interfered in police and firefighting operations and lastly crashed into civilian populations causing injuries. This article is placed in such a paradigm where clear absence of regulations have led to imposition of blanket bans post freak accidents and subsequent media hysteria leading to isolation of these progressive gadgets from our daily lives.
Some of the gravest legal concerns surrounding use of civilian drones are as follows:-
- Breach of privacy – Whether we will tolerate such breaches at the cost of advancement of technologies?
- Socio-technical factor surrounding how drones are perceived by different individuals – The perception of people surrounding a machine doing human functions prone to error in varying societal conditions due to lack of human decision making process.
- Civilian accidents – Whether we will ignore the hit and run cases of drones as in that of car accidents?
- Interference in daily lives – By allowing the beautiful machines that we’ve built to travel distances that we would rather not, how far do we let them go?
- Fairness of trade in case of delivery by drones
The lack of existence of a clear framework regulating use of commercial and non-commercial drones in most countries across the world has led to imposition of blanket bans on their very use. For instance, in October 2014 in India, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) announced that until proper rules and regulations are formulated, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) are forbidden from taking to Indian airspace for any non-government agency, organization or individual without prior authorisation. The use is only permitted if permission is obtained from a number of governmental agencies which are usually out of civilian reach like the DGCA, Air Navigation Service Provider, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Home Affairs and other concerned agencies. The fact on paper is that no private organization has been given license to use drones. Toy stores and other private markets continue to sell drones and consumers buy them, unaware of the fact that such transaction and use is illegal.
In another provision the Indian government adopts a one size fits all policy wherein the draft guidelines distinguishes civilian drones into four weight categories: micro (less than 2kg), mini (less than 20kg), small (less than 150kg) and large (greater than 150 kgs). The draft mandates that all drones are to be registered irrespective of their weight. A huge error lies in not distinguishing Nano Drones in the said process which have limited commercial usage in terms of distance they can travel and the uses they serve. The nano drones in its very nature should be exempted from registration formalities, third party insurance policies, the minimum 18 year old age limit of piloting which are relevant only for heavier drones.
The United States of America came up with a set of progressive regulations which try to do away with the blanket ban system and fixes a central law for use of civilian drones earlier this year. The Federal Aviation Administration’s new commercial drone rules allow a broad range of businesses to use drones under 55 pounds(approximately 25 kgs), but with several restrictions:
- The drones must be operated by a pilot who has passed a written test and is at least 16 years old.
- Drones can be flown only below 400 feet during the day (as a matter of fact, drones usually don’t fly above 350 feet so envisages all possibilities).
- They have to fly at least five miles away from airports.
- They can’t travel at more than 100 kmph over civilian population.
- They have to fly at a visible line of sight.
The perception surrounding use of drones in general doing day to day human work is that of apprehension. The negativity surrounding use of drones develops from the side effects of legalizing it like privacy breaches and freak accidents.Thus whenever an accident is reported, the media highlights only that portion and it becomes the generalized picture surrounding use of drones. This becomes problematic on two levels:-
- Leads to cases of people perceiving drones as a threat and damaging them physically and not accepting their usefulness mentally(several cases reported including destruction of state controlled UAVs)
- Leads to formulation of drone piloting policies solely to appease public sentiment resulting to blanket bans instead of regulating measures. This is the larger issue with media hysteria and subsequent public policy.
For instance, in Florida, after a few cases of privacy breaches were reported, legislation prohibiting unmanned aerial vehicles from taking pictures of citizens was passed. On the basis of singular events the broader benefits of drones taking pictures like active citizen journalism, contribution to photography, contribution to science were completely ignored. Also the same legislation was a breach of freedom of expression according to rights bestowed by First Amendment as it drew an unfair distinction only extended to drones.
In a diverse geopolitical and mostly rural background like in India, where a balance between technology and individual rights need to be made, it is necessary that there is a need of presence of regulation mechanisms and not a complete blanket ban on the technology as whole which stops the very basic right of access to technology. Till the time we get used to the usefulness of the machines that we have built, drones will be perceived negatively. Till the time a proper regulation mechanism comes into being you can be sure that if Amazon executives are testing a drone delivery system so are prison inmates.