How to Have a Constructive Discussion About Drones: A Future Tense Event Recap

Joseph Hall, Matthew Waite, Don Roby, and Shane Harris at “The Drone Next Door”

Photo by Eliza French/New America Foundation.

When it comes to drones, people can get a little worked up. Of course, that makes sense, given that the most high-profiled related issues—targeted killings and potentially intrusive surveillance—are also very high-stakes.

But shrillness and emotion seldom create reasonable action. At “The Drone Next Door,” a Future Tense event held at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, speakers tried to look at drones—and their domestic applications, in particular—in a more nuanced, constructive way. As the day progressed, several ideas that may be most crucial to productive debate about the coming eyes in American skies emerged. Some we can, and must, implement now—but others are works in progress.

1. Settle on vocabulary.
Many industry insiders bristle at the word drone. Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said that he thinks drone is inaccurate because in reality, “someone is operating the system.” That’s why he and his group prefer “unmanned vehicle systems” or, for aircraft, “unmanned aerial vehicles.” But Slate national correspondent William Saletan, who opened the day with a presentation about drones in popular culture, says too bad: The word drone is “locked in,” and just wait until it “becomes a verb.” In response to Saletan’s remark, AUVSI good-naturedly tweeted, “Challenge accepted!” But given the surge in drone awareness and the rather jargon-y awkwardness of “UAV,” perhaps this is a battle not worth fighting.

2. Realize that drones are not necessarily the real issue.
One of the recurring themes of the day was, What’s the real difference between a drone and a guy with a camera, or a smartphone with a camera, or surveillance cameras that stud city streets?

Drones have become “a stand-in for all of these complex surveillance mechanisms,” like data from cellphones and social networking, or ubiquitous security cameras, said Daniel Rothenberg of Arizona State University. Similarly, in a presentation, Rosa Brooks, a New America fellow and Foreign Policy columnist who previously worked at the Defense Department, said that many of the discussions about drones’ military applications are “red herrings.” In reality, the discussions about drones are really debates about “the nature of modern warfare and how we define modern warfare.”

3. Stay grounded.
It’s easy to get caught up in hyperbole here. But Konstantin Kakaes, a New America fellow who writes about technology, noted in a presentation that in the past, many military technologies failed to make the anticipated leap into domestic use. Despite predictions, we don’t all have helicopters—because it isn’t cost-effective. For now, drones make economic sense to use in the military, but for the most part, there isn’t a good reason to use them at home. They’re still too expensive, and they’re still too flawed.

But even if regulations permit increased drone use and the cost comes down, that doesn’t mean everyone needs to go get their own. Waite pointed out that drones can have sharp blades—and “a whole community of flying lawnmowers sounds terrifying,” he said. Finally, another important tempering factor to keep in mind is that “The bad actors are the ones that are going to get a lot of the press,” according to Joseph Lorenzo Hall of the Center for Democracy and Technology. While we need to talk about abuses of drones at home, we can’t assume that all uses fall into that category.

4. Discuss regulation smartly—not knee-jerkingly.
The ACLU’s Catherine Crump noted that though government surveillance strikes fear in people for now, the bigger concern may eventually be about private drone use—because at least the government can be regulated. Still, she cautioned, any restrictions on government surveillance won’t be worth “a hill of beans if the government can purchase the information from a private party.”

5. Don’t try to label the technology itself as “good” or “bad.”
Rothenberg believes that it’s “silly” to ask whether someone is “for or against drones.” Drones are just a tool, as panelists emphasized again and again.

Furthermore, while most headlines about drones focus on targeted killings overseas or dramatic invasions of privacy at home, many of our speakers noted the potential good uses for drones. MIT’s Missy Cummings thinks that they will transform agriculture; Toscano took that a step further, saying that they could help create better global food security. World Wildlife Fund President Carter Roberts talked about using drones to stop poachers in real time—not with weaponized aircraft, of course, but by alerting authorities in the ground. Robbie Hood of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration discussed drones’ potential to assess oil spills in remote areas of Alaska and said she is particularly excited about how drones can help bring science to the public. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., thinks drones could help guide efforts to prevent and fight forest fires. The University of Nebraska’s Matthew Waite started the Drone Journalism Lab because, as you might guess, he thinks drones could help reporting. (He cautions, however, that he has come to realize that journalists are terrible drone pilots.) Don Roby, a captain in the Baltimore Police Department, says that law enforcement isn’t just interested in drones for surveillance, but also for “search and rescue, traffic accidents, fires, tactical ops.”

6. Don’t just say you want a “meaningful discussion.”
This lesson comes not from the event speakers, but the audience. Amie Stepanovich of the Electronic Privacy Information Censor tweeted, “The DC answer is always, more discussions! But rarely are they meaningful in practice.” 

But take heart! Not all of the day was focused on such vagaries. There were more many substantive proposals and ideas as well. For instance, Hall called for drones to come with license plates of a sort, which will help both with safety and with transparency.

Frustratingly, so many of the challenges posed by domestic drones conflict with one another. As Crump pointed out, the ACLU “believes the First Amendment protects your right to take pictures, particularly in public places” even as it is concerned about “persistent aerial surveillance.” Drones can both offer and threaten freedom in that way.

Perhaps Hall summed it up best when saying, “The trick is … we want to integrate these things not only into our airspace but into society.” Furthermore, he added, “We can only predict so much. When it comes down to it we’ll have to really work this out”—and “work this out” means protecting people from unwanted surveillance by government, by business, and by their neighbors; integrating drones into the airspace in a safe manner; and allowing for hobbyists to create innovative small businesses.

But as complicated as it may be—and apologies for going back to the vague “discussion”—Rothenberg believes that “We’re lucky to have this drone debate” because of what it represents. “The word drone may be inaccurate,” he said, but “it carries with it a sense of foreboding and fear that I think is very real. … allowing for a discussion that previously just wasn’t quite coming to the fore.” The drone has “terrifying power that speaks to a future that’s uncertain.”

For more on why we’re transfixed by drones and how we should think about them, here are Slate pieces written by participants from today’s events and other smart commentators. You can also watch the entire event on the New America Foundation website.

Drone Over America: We’ve seen what drones can do in Pakistan. So we’re not exactly thrilled about being watched by them at home,” by William Saletan.
What the Drone Debate Is Really About: It’s not privacy or state power,” by Daniel Rothenberg.
Eyes in the Sky: What the rise of the helicopter tells us about the future of domestic drones,” by Konstantin Kakaes.
Privacy Concerns Shouldn’t Ground Journalism Drones,” by Nabiha Syed.
No-Fly Zone: How ‘drone’ safety regulations can also help protect privacy,” by John Villasenor.
The Golden Age of Privacy Is Over: But don’t blame drones,” by Brad Allenby.
Why Americans Are Saying No to Domestic Drones: States and cities are increasingly passing legislation to stop the use of surveillance drones,” by Catherine Crump and Jay Stanley.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.