Drones: More Questions Than Answers


When Wilbur and Orville were sweeping the sand out of their Kitty Hawk work shed in 1903, could they have possibly imagined their little engineering project would one day lead to constitutional debates? It could very well come to that.As you’ve probably noticed, unmanned aircraft-military and civilian-are all over the news recently, and with good reason. It’s not that the working press has just noticed them, but it’s how rapidly drones are being incorporated into both war and everyday life and the difficult moral and ethical issues this raises.At last week’s Senate hearing for John Brennan, the CIA designate-director, the good senators missed an opportunity to grill him on potential checks and balances for the CIA-operated armed drone program. And what precious little that did emerge revealed that there aren’t any checks and balances worthy of the name. In 1967, the Air Force and Navy bitterly complained that Lyndon Johnson was second guessing their Vietnam targeting lists. Thanks to the lethal capability of remotely piloted drones, the chief executive basically has push-button killing capability to be employed against anyone he deems a threat to U.S. security, including Americans abroad. Lyndon Johnson would have loved it.Brennan allowed as how the administration is real careful, but nobody outside a select group reviews the intent or the results of drone targeting. I suspect even John Madison and Alexander Hamilton, staunch believers in strong executive powers, would think twice about this capability left unchallenged. The potential for abuse is like mold. All it needs is the right conditions to flourish.The constitution is clear that congress retains war declaration authority and the War Powers Act, which every president of either party seems to consider unconstitutional, is supposed to buttress that fact. But when the CIA or military agencies can field hundreds if not thousands of these armed drone aircraft over foreign countries operated from the friendly desert of Nevada, does that meet the constitutional threshold of war with a foreign power? No answers seem forthcoming and I thought the Senate was too gutless to even ask. But really, all this is occurring 7000 miles away so why even bother to worry about it? (That’s a rhetorical query.)While the short-term efficacy of drone strikes may be positive, the long-term effects may not be. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, recently told Reuters that “What scares me about drone strikes is how theyre perceived around the world. The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes… is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people whove never seen one or seen the effects of one.Closer to home, the march of the aerial drones is just as challenging and has real implications for GA. The FAA is busy trying to figure out how unmanned aircraft will fit into the national airspace system, sharing airways with Cessnas and Boeings. I used to think concerns about this were the paranoid ravings of modern-day Luddites, but I’m having second thoughts based on the sheer explosive volume of UAV technology. According to Time magazine, just 10 years ago, the Pentagon had 50 drones; now it has 7500, a 150-fold increase in just a decade. On the civilian side, hard numbers are difficult to find, but it’s certainly in the thousands. Law enforcement, government agencies, real estate agents, hunters, surveyors and, well, everybody, is finding applications for this useful technology. In a decade or less, you’ll see crop dusting UAVs, pipeline inspection UAVs and delivery UAVs and don’t be surprised if they do pizza.You can see why the FAA has its hands full. With that kind of burgeoning volume, the problems are obvious. When does a sophisticated RC model become a UAV? And what determines that? Is it altitude? Speed? Autonomy? Sensors? Some combination of these? And if so, what combination? Will you need a license to operate it? How about a flight plan? Can anyone fly these things anywhere?Technology almost always outstrips regulation and, especially, legal doctrine. The courts have already held that it doesn’t violate the Fourth Amendment for a police helicopter crew to fly over your backyard and shine a spotlight into the dark corners. So, in theory, doing the same thing with a drone shouldn’t be any different. But what if a quiet little hovering drone-these are close to reality-stops by for a close look into the windows? Will that constitute unlawful or unreasonable search? My vote, by the way, would be yes. Want a look, get a warrant.Given the drone proliferation I just cited, the last 10 years have been interesting, but the import of these developments has been barely noticed by even those of us in aviation. The next decade will be likely be anything but low key when it comes to drone technology. And we won’t be the only ones who have it.