Future Tense

How the FAA’s Drone Policy Will Affect the Rest of The World

The Hungarian Parliament building on the banks of the Danube river in Budapest, with no drones in sight


My colleagues and I have been playing with a drone in Budapest, flying it over public plazas and parks that are immediately adjacent to the embassies of powerful countries. Should we be able to do that? The Hungarian government hasn’t decided yet, nor have many other governments around the world.

That includes the United States, which has a prime opportunity to influence drone regulation worldwide. The Obama administration has tasked the FAA with drafting national guidelines for personal and for-profit use (though Slate’s John Frank Weaver has asked whether it has the authority to do so). These guidelines are long overdue as regulators scratch their heads about what to do with these devices. Are drones hobbyist craft or small airplanes? When are they toys, and when are they for surveillance or delivering pizzas or search and rescue? The FAA has been soliciting public input from Americans over the last few months. The ultimate decision will have a global impact for one simple reason: There is no policy consensus on the issue.

In order to craft the right policies surrounding unmanned aerial vehicles, it is necessary to separate drone usage into three major categories: military (important, but not our focus here), for-profit (like DHL’s tested delivery drone), and nonprofit. The nonprofit category—drones for good—would ensure that researchers, protesters, advocacy groups, artists, hobbyists, and journalists remain free to operate these devices for both their own enrichment and the greater good.

How the U.S. handles its domestic drone policy sends an important signal to friends and foes, autocrats and democrats alike. If the United States endorses an approach that prematurely and clumsily curbs usage, the message will be taken as a clear signal in Budapest, Pretoria, Nairobi, and Moscow. The FAA must find a way to balance the profitability of businesses and safety of the general public with democracy’s most fundamental objectives: freedom of assembly and the press.

The rightward swing in recent EU elections, the assault on democracy and the press in Hungary, and the invasion of eastern Ukraine by Russia represent the greatest organized strains on Western democracy since the fall of the Berlin Wall. As democratic institutions are stifled and civil society groups are hectored and threatened through courts and administrative avenues, it is as important as ever to secure information and raise awareness about these threats.

Hungarian legislators are currently drafting legislation to regulate drone use. My colleagues and I at the Center for Media, Data, and Society at Central European University in Budapest have used camera-equipped drones to document concerts, crowds, and protest events. We are doing this at the same time as others launched a drone to document unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed by a police officer. The drones flown in both cases are the same make and model, and the airspace they flew in—one in the middle of the U.S. and the other in the middle of Europe—both lack clear policies. The FAA had closed the airspace over Ferguson, yet it is not clear this restriction applied to drones. Furthermore, the drone used there was launched by a Russian news outlet—a commercial entity and therefore prohibited by the FAA.

In both cases, drones operated within citizen journalism’s core commitment to popular engagement in public and political life, and under the broader commitment to freedom of association and freedom of the press. Hungary looks more likely to take policy advice from Putin than Obama. Nevertheless, a decisive stance sends the positive message to those still interested in safeguarding and nurturing open society.

Unfortunately, all signs point to the liklihood that the window is closing for the U.S. to take the lead on nonprofit and commercial usage. The United States’ peer democracies like Australia and Germany are more open to for-profit drone use. Google is currently testing a UAV-based delivery system in Australia and DHL has begun testing a delivery service to an unpopulated German island.

Democracies in decline have limited the nonprofit use. At present, anyone wishing to film with camera-equipped drones in Hungary must apply for a permit 30 days in advance, and applicants are not guaranteed approval. This essentially eliminates the possibility of documenting spontaneous acts of civil disobedience or government abuse. Violating this policy recently cost a cameraman from Hungarian public TV a hefty 100,000 forint ($400) fine.

Still, other countries are biding their time and may be looking to the United States for guidance. A celebrated anti-poaching drone program in Kenya was recently grounded until something resembling an international policy norm emerges. A similar decision in South Africa recommended grounding private use, but this policy has not stopped a Pretoria-based arms dealer from developing, marketing, and selling a pepper-spray equipped riot control drone.

Drones will not solve democracy’s ills, but prematurely or severely curbing their use by the press and activists is a sure sign that the openness and transparency they facilitate is not welcome. Whatever the FAA does, it has to keep open the possibility that drones can be used for good. The rest of the world will be watching American regulation. If the U.S. limits civic groups from using drones in creative ways, other countries may do the same.