Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Regulating Drones for Positive Impacts

By Uni WeiPublished December 5, 2019

Drones have the potential for both good and evil, but so far we have only seen a small fraction of their capabilities. Whether drones have a net positive or negative impact is up to how we re
Drones have the potential for both good and evil, but so far we have only seen a small fraction of their capabilities. Whether drones have a net positive or negative impact is up to how we regulate them.

Over the last year, both positive and negative news about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) - commonly known as drones - has appeared in periodicals and on talk-shows more often than ever. On Apr 25, 2019, an article about drones “delivering life-saving medicines in Ghana” came out; on Apr 30, 2019, “A drone has been used to deliver a donor kidney for the first time”; on Sep 15, 2019, “A coordinated drone attack has knocked out half of Saudi Arabia’s oil supply”. Drones have been one of the key fields in technological research advances, precisely due to the huge potential of their multifaceted applications in all different aspects of our daily life, exemplified by the few cases above. However, it is also obvious that, at this point in time, the power of drones is used for both peaceful and harmful causes. The reason behind this is the lack - indeed, almost a complete absence - of drone regulations in the form of policies or laws.


In 2015, the Kentucky police arrested a man for shooting down a drone flying over his home. This hot potato thrown in front of the Kentucky court is the controversy between the privacy of property owners and the property right of drone owners. By nature of the technology drones utilize, drones are intended to fly at very low altitudes - the average person height or not far above it. Unlike airplanes - which fly far above from people or houses, drones are meant to be used in close proximity to the operator. Simply banning drones from flying close to others without consent would greatly interfere with the normal functioning of the drones while, on the other hand, drones shouldn’t be given unlimited right to freely intrude others’ privacy and daily lives. The key question to ask is how should we balance this trade-off in the yet formed drone regulations. In the current US property law, property owners have the right to exclude intruders within 500 feet above the surface of the land, thus traditional airplanes - which all fly above this height - don’t interfere with individuals’ rights to property and privacy. This law will certainly have to be adapted in order to accommodate for the low flying height of drones.


Last November, the first ever of global standards for drones was launched by the International Organization of Standardization. Under this new standard, human interventions in the operations of the drones are mandatory for all drone flights, establishing accountability for drone operators. Although this regulation applies solely to aircraft drones and has no implications on small commercial drones, this is at least a meaningful step forward into the unchartered territory of drone regulations. For the earliest regulations, it is reasonable to predict that they would primarily focus on the safety and risk controls of drones usage. After the basic skeleton of drone regulations is laid out, social and ethical issues, as discussed in the paragraph above, will become the center of discussion in order for drones to be smoothly introduced into the daily lives of the public.


Looking beyond the United States, scholars in Spain have published the paper “The Use of Drones in Spain: Towards a Platform for Controlling UAVs in Urban Environments” in 2018, proposing the design of a digital platform to control and regulate drones. Indeed, this approach of using machines to regulate machines is a potential direction to explore in order to find the best suitable means to regulate drones without affecting their efficient functioning. As drones gain popularity across the world, international discussions and collaborations are important in the process of drafting laws and policies.


This issue of regulation not catching up with the imminent utilization of drones in multiple industries is not an isolated case; in fact, it hints toward the general trend of the mismatched pace of technological advancements and the policymaking process in today’s age of intelligence. This trend will probably continue in the coming decades, and it is a major priority to underline the significance of this issue and bring its attention to both the White House and Silicon Valley.