Time for Action on Drones?: Regulators may soon need to devote attention to unmanned flight

The rise of drones; small, unmanned air vehicles capable of being controlled remotely from great distances, is permeating the public consciousness, and the time may be coming for clarifying regulatory action to set out citizens’ rights and responsibilities, establish their legitimate uses, and regulate their airspace.


A recent petition, signed by over 1,000 artificial intelligence scientists, prominent physicist Stephen Hawking, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has called upon the United Nations to ban the development and deployment of autonomous weapons, pointing to their ominous potential both in the hypothetical event of artificial intelligence and in the very real context of cheap deployment by terrorists and paramilitary groups.


The retail giant Amazon has released a proposal calling for a slab of airspace between 200 and 400 feet off the ground to be set aside by aeronautic authorities for the exclusive use of commercial drones, both Amazon’s and those of other companies.  Recent pilot projects for drone-based delivery, commercially in Switzerland and by abortion activists in Poland point to the possibility of the need for serious government attention to the imminent practical significance of drone regulation.


Until recently, drones were mostly a recreational technology used by hobbyists and enthusiasts. Unmanned lightweight aircraft are currently unregulated in Canada if used for noncommercial purposes. The US Military’s high profile deployment of the remote-controlled Predator and autonomous Reaper drones for targeted assassinations in the Middle East, however, and recent developments to further weaponize the technology by reducing it radically in scale and expense, have introduced a darker side to the technology. While a more hopeful development, Mark Zuckerberg’s non-profit foundation, Internet.org’s Aquila program to develop drones to beam low-cost internet into developing nations is also raising questions about jurisdiction, fairness, and equity, to say nothing of the question of whether or not such an important service is best left in the hands of the private sector to develop.
Governments have an important role to play in the regulation of drones. They must act as a critical voice of sober reflection to ensure that the public interest is taken into account. Regulators around the world are currently being accused of stalling in the face of widespread innovation, and not knowing how to address this issue. Public safety, enforcement and compliance are all areas where states will have an important role to play. Rather than responding reactively to issues after they have already arisen, states need to learn to anticipate problems before they present themselves. Their citizens will thank them for it in the end.

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*This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.