Drones are aircraft that are not flown by human beings. They monitor the environment, kill people with unreliable precision, violate privacy and tell scientists what is happening to vast and inaccessible environments. These devices offer essential help and contribute to our worst nightmares. Given the incredible range of benefit and threat, it is no wonder that America's domestic drone expansion is meeting with rising alarm, resistance and surprising support at the same time. During the past few months, the debate over drone dependency has centered around misuse of drones in military combat, law enforcement, oil and gas speculation and spying on human activities. According to a Feb. 13 Wired article, the American drone industry will have to meet demands for heavy regulation.
It is clear that domestic American drone makers could go through a new age gold rush as drones transition from military to civilian roles. According to an Aug. 10, 2012 article in Popular Scientist,
"People are talking a whole lot as well about local law enforcement, public safety, site security, forestry, pipeline inspection, mining operations, infrastructure safety, border security, oil and gas exploration, farming, and countless other potential applications for unmanned systems here at home."
People are also talking about drones that can hover around homes and backyards to spy on the most intimate details of personal life. Drones must fly on volatile or heavy fuel and they carry substantial bulk. Mismanagement, poor maintenance and other issues create flight hazards at very low altitude and in America's very busy commercial airspace. If wind power generating turbines are a threat to migrating bird species, drones are a threat too.
The lack of any uniform national or state level regulation has its source in the size, weight and purpose of most domestic drones. Any American drone that weighs under 55 pounds, flies within 400 feet of an operator’s line of sight, is for a not-for-profit reason, and is away from an airport is designated as a model airplane that can fly without a license. This means individuals and non profit organizations could do as they please with domestic drones.
When it comes to beneficial uses, domestic drones present as much risk as reward. A Siskorski Dragon Warrior drone, for example, is designed for urban reconnaissance. It carries 41 pounds of heavy fuel. 41 pounds of heavy fuel is not desirable in a device that could crash into a crowd or building. Worse, any drone carrying that amount of fuel is a fire threat in heavily forested areas during fire season. Environmentalists would love to have detailed video surveillance of remote, inaccessible forest or land areas, but given the risk, fuel laden drones are a self cancelling benefit.
If domestic American drones are to be of any use, many questions must be answered. Many fears must be alleviated. Many constraints and regulations will be required. A high level of distrust in authority is endemic and will never go away. This is not a time for a "gold rush" of profit for the domestic drone industry. This is a time to listen to the will of a highly polarized populace, the common sense of safety and regulatory experts and the realities of threat and benefit associated with a widespread deployment of domestic drones.