Drones are inescapable in today’s media, whether they’re crashing on the White House lawn, soaring over bubbling Icelandic volcanoes, or being sold at the mall as a hot gift. And as a recent Reuters/Ipsos online poll found, when it comes to drones, many Americans are certifiably creeped-out. A remarkable 42 percent of respondents said that they disapprove of the ownership of drones by private citizens. It’s clear this new industry has a PR problem—and if average Americans aren’t convinced that drones can be a force for good, a promising new area of technological advancement could potentially be stopped in its tracks.
The poll of 2,405 Americans demonstrated that many people harbor “not in my backyard” sentiments when it comes to drones: Seventy-one percent said drones should not be permitted to operate over the property of others, while 64 percent said they hope their neighbors won’t add drone flying to their list of weekend pursuits.
When it comes to the usage of drones by the authorities, the respondents felt a lot friendlier: Sixty-eight percent felt that the police should be permitted to use drones to solve crimes, while 62 percent favored their usage as a deterrent. Drones usage by news agencies proved more controversial, with 41 percent in favor and 46 percent opposed—but curiously, 49 percent felt it was fine for parents to monitor their children with the assistance of flying robots.
Perhaps these responses aren’t surprising, considering that the public almost always greets new technologies with skepticism. Consider the 1800s Locomotive Acts in the United Kingdom, which mandated laughable-sounding driving regulations like requiring a poor soul with a red flag to walk in front of the vehicle at all times. While cars are now ubiquitous and these rules appear comically archaic, drone supporters should be aware that strict regulations—maybe even involving literal red flags—could be passed in the U.S. if these attitudes persist. When it comes to legislation, the public’s disapproval of drones could very well turn into support for tight restrictions or even an outright ban on drone use by private citizens, as evidenced by bills supporting bans that are already on the table in some U.S. communities, including in New York City. To prevent public distrust from turning into strict lawmaking, it’s time that drone supporters got better at accentuating the positive, and when it comes to drones, there’s a lot of it.
Drones are remarkably versatile devices, giving everyone with a few thousand dollars in the bank easy access to formerly unprecedented amounts of aerial data. While that may sound unsettling, access to this new source of information is already helping humanity in a wide variety of ways, from safety inspections to wildlife monitoring to journalism.
Journalists have used drones to document the aftermath of battle in Donetsk, Ukraine, and the destruction of Typhoon Haiyan, while scientists use drones to keep tabs of orangutans and their habitat in Indonesia. Data collected by drones has been used to aid disaster response in Haiti and the Philippines, operating at a fraction of the cost of a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft.
What’s more, keeping drones in private hands is good business. While only 10 percent of the Reuters poll respondents said they would likely buy a drone in the next year, the consumer drone industry is just getting started. The Consumer Electronics Association projects $130 million in revenue on consumer drones in 2015 and guesses the industry could “easily” push $1 billion in revenue over the next five years. The U.S. is home to many innovators in the consumer drone industry, including 3D Robotics, Airware, Skycatch, and the drone research projects funded by Amazon, Facebook, and Google. These are all businesses that would be forced to go elsewhere if drones were restricted only to official use in the U.S.
Many Americans seem unclear on drones’ actual limitations. For example, while 49 percent of Americans may be open to using a drone to keep tabs on their kids, there’s no way that scheme would work with today’s technology. Today’s drones emit an obnoxious buzzing that sounds like a swarm of angry bees—binoculars remain a better choice for stealthily spying on your high schooler. Beyond the can’t-miss-it noise, the vast majority of drones available to the public can’t stay in the air for much more than 20 minutes, making the window of spying opportunity rather pathetically brief.
Even if you somehow don’t notice your creepy neighbor peering into your backyard with a buzzing, short-lived drone, existing Peeping Tom laws should cover this kind of high-tech voyeurism, as this Washington Post article thoroughly explains. While the law will inevitably change to reflect the usage of drones, existing regulations already provide protection in the interim—meaning that your neighbor with a drone definitely doesn’t have carte blanche to terrorize you.
Beyond all these caveats, extremely strict restrictions or outright drone bans probably wouldn’t even be effective. Building a drone requires little more than a bag of imported parts from China and a soldering iron. Truly dedicated creeps and criminals won’t find it that difficult to fashion their own devices, meaning that tough rules or bans would do more harm to law-abiding drone pilots than to the intended targets.
So, if heavily restricting access to drones or outright banning them isn’t the answer to the problems drones present, what can be done? Let’s look to history. In the United States, we’ve collectively decided that the benefits outweigh the negatives of a number of potentially dangerous technologies, from motor vehicles to the Internet itself. The trick to reaping the benefits of a technology that can potentially be used for nefarious purposes is introducing good regulations, not overly strict rules that can strangle innovation.
Judging by the Reuters poll, Americans know regulations are key, with 73 percent in agreement that consumer drones should be regulated. Unfortunately, they may not be coming for a while: The Federal Aviation Administration is taking a long time indeed to impose rules on the use of drones. The agency missed a 2014 deadline to unveil a draft version of a regulatory framework for commercial drone use, and it has said it expects to miss the September 2015 deadline for the integration of drones into U.S. airspace as well. Now it’s pushed back its timetable for integration to 2017 at the earliest, trying the patience of aspirant commercial drone pilots.
While the FAA is stalling, progress in drone technology and in accompanying legislation continues in other parts of the world. A number of nations have already introduced drone regulations that do a good job of weighing the benefits against the public’s interest in privacy and safety. Australia, for example, permits their commercial usage but requires that these pilots have a license and undergo training before they can fly. France allows commercial operators to fly with a special certification and has already begun fining pilots who break the rules.
To get good regulations off the ground, drone companies and hobbyists need to convince Americans their negative perceptions of drones aren’t accurate. Hobby drone pilots should offer to show their friends, their colleagues, and people at the park how their machine flies and what it does, countering popular narratives about drones as sinister and mysterious machines. On the business side, the Small UAV Coalition, which is made up of members with a stake in the drone industry, is a good start, with the group already sponsoring a free OK Go concert in Washington, D.C., last month to promote responsible flying. But more needs to be done.
While most Americans may be wary of drones, it’s early days yet, and it’s eminently possible to strike a balance between the needs of private drone operators and the people who share their communities and airspace. Drone skeptics should try to keep an open mind and remember the rich history of human skepticism of new technologies and new concepts, from the motor vehicle to the personal computer to the Internet. It’d be a sad thing indeed if Americans decided to turn their backs on what may be another technological revolution.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.