Drones: Coming soon to a sky near you

Drones are "unmanned aerial vehicles," or UAVs. Drones come in all shapes and sizes, each being designed for one of two purposes: surveillance or warfare. The two best-known drone models are at the extreme ends of the scale.

Drones are “unmanned aerial vehicles,” or UAVs. Drones come in all shapes and sizes, each being designed for one of two purposes: surveillance or warfare.

The two best-known drone models are at the extreme ends of the scale. The average citizen can use an iPhone to conduct neighbourhood surveillance with the Parrot AR Drone 2.0. This stylish unit packs a flight guidance system and an HD video camera into a form factor about the size and weight of a large pizza. You can pick one up at The Source for just over $300.

If bombing al-Qaida hideouts in Afghanistan is more your style, you’ll have to join the U.S. Air Force or the CIA. It’s only within those organizations that you’ll get the opportunity to pilot the massive, missile-laden $56-million Reaper from the comfort of a base in Nevada.

Drones are used widely around the world, even here in Canada, but it’s truly the U.S. that is at the vanguard of their application. American forces fly 10 to 15 drone missions every day over civilian areas in war zones like Afghanistan. They are generally used to monitor populations and target militants with remote air strikes, but drones also have a chilling psychological side effect. The constant buzzing of these low-flying aircraft makes it difficult for people to sleep and contributes to a general state of mental disturbance and paranoia.

In areas of the world that the U.S. heavily uses them, drones have become the new bogeyman. Local parents threaten to call in an air strike if their kids won’t get to bed. (That’s not a joke. And kids have been killed by drone strikes in many places.)

The American government touts the precision with which drones can destroy key enemy targets. However, no one – not even the U.S. military itself – can account for the civilian death toll. The Brookings Institution estimates that for every militant killed by drones during the U.S.’ campaign in Pakistan, 10 civilians also died.

The U.S. monitors the Canadian border with its last-generation Predator drones. Speaking of Canada, until last year, our military also flew drones in Afghanistan. They were an Israeli-developed model called the Huron, and they were used only for surveillance purposes to support the efforts of ground troops.

More recently, our military has used drones to patrol the Canadian Arctic out of bases in Inuvik, N.W.T., and Churchill, Manitoba. The Ontario Provincial Police uses drones to investigate crime and accident scenes. The use of drones in Canada by law enforcement agencies and the military has largely flown below the public policy radar with very limited scrutiny.

And efforts by the Canadian Forces to expand its drone program have almost consistently been rebuffed. That may be because our government has put almost no effort into establishing laws and regulations around the use of drones. It’s pretty much up to aging Transport Canada regulations to govern how we use these fast-evolving aircraft. From a governance perspective, all is quiet on the northern front.

That’s very different from the U.S., which is currently engaged in an intense public debate over the issue. One of the key aspects being considered, as you might expect, is privacy. Every drone has at least a video camera and listening equipment attached to it. Many also have radar and infrared capabilities along with wireless Internet and telephone-tapping equipment. With widespread use, that would give government agencies an unprecedented reach into the lives and environments of citizens.

To help establish the rules by which drones might be used in the U.S., some civil-rights organizations are demanding that remote test cities be built, like those old nuclear blast sites. That way the privacy-invading capabilities of drones could be tested, measured and understood before they are widely used in real-world civil situations.

That’s not enough for some Americans, however. Charlottesville, Virginia, has banned the use of drones outright. Some states, including California, Oregon, Texas, and North Dakota, are looking into similar measures. The use of drones is on the rise. They present immense utility to government, law enforcement, military and citizens alike that can’t be ignored. But drones are also a tangled mess of issues that need to be ravelled out in advance of their widespread use.

Like most technologies, drones themselves are neutral. It’s in how we design and establish the rules and standards of their use that we characterize their utility. Better that governments get to work on that sooner rather than later. Otherwise, next year’s model of the Parrot might come armed with a squirt gun. And we can all imagine the social anarchy that will ensue from that technological advancement.

Andrew Robulack is an award-winning entrepreneur, writer and consultant specializing in using technology and the Internet to communicate. Read his blog at www.geeklife.ca.