Droning on about technology


Over the last year the Federal Aviation Administration has received a lot of criticism for its rules prohibiting the commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) more commonly known as “drones.” On one side of the debate are corporate interests (namely Amazon.com) who see the technology as part of an untapped delivery modality and journalists who see drone use as a matter of First Amendment expression. On the other is the privacy lobby. Those in this corner are exemplified by the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union and Sen. Rand Paul.

The ACLU and Paul have both proposed strident regulation of drone use, especially by law enforcement. As Forbes.com contributor and technology expert Greg McNeal wrote in August 2012, “The ACLU wants reasonable suspicion before (a drone) can be used. Senator Rand Paul wants a warrant before the systems can be used, an even higher standard … than reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion, the lowest standard currently proposed by the privacy lobby, is more restrictive than the current standard … for flying a manned aircraft.”

McNeal goes further in his critique of the privacy lobby’s opposition to drones. He characterizes the proposed standards as being very bad for business, “In short, it’s an industry killing standard, premised upon fear and technophobia.”

McNeal may be onto something. While most of us could probably agree that furtive aerial peeking by the government crosses a line, there are legitimate, non-invasive commercial uses that current FAA rules needlessly circumscribe.

One that immediately comes to mind is coverage of last week’s tornado damage by local ABC affiliate KATV. Storm chaser and videographer Brian Emfinger used a drone to document the aftermath of the storms. The FAA is now considering whether to fine Emfinger and the news station.

KATV news director Nick Gentry told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, “Emfinger’s white drone, which can carry a small video camera, is about a foot and a half wide with propellers that are about eight inches long, he said. It has been used by KATV before to cover a fire at the Majestic Hotel in Hot Springs earlier this year.”

Gentry continued by saying: “It gave great perspective of how bad the damage was in Mayflower.”

KATV is not alone in its drone use. Tim Trieschmann, owner of The Shot Above, a company that specializes in aerial photography in Little Rock, also used a drone to provide aerial footage for channel KLRT on Monday.

While the bureaucratic dimensions of the above issue will probably be settled in a series of lawsuits, the broader issue at hand revolves around society’s schizophrenic relationship with technology. On the one hand we love new whirling doo-dads and cancer treatments. On the other, we’re worried about our looming conquest by robot overlords.

A new poll conducted by the Smithsonian Magazine and Pew research confirms this fact. As Smithsonian writers put it, “Most Americans view the technology-driven future with a sense of hope. They just don’t want to live there.”

This all goes to a very basic fact of humanity: We fear the unknown. Even if the unknown stands to bring something good, we get caught up in doomsaying “what ifs.” Some of this is likely hard-wired survival instincts. Some of it is just plodding resistance to change.

Of course, not all change is good; and not all technological revolutions untether us from our erstwhile yokes. It is, therefore, positive that we have this debate about drones. Whatever the outcome, the technology will find its proper place in our collective history.