Drones on Washington State’s Horizon

by John Stafford

Nationwide, one of the most important public policy issues that will be addressed in the upcoming legislative sessions is unmanned aerial vehicle (drone) regulation.  Within a decade, drones will become a common part of everyday life, with hundreds of different applications in use across the military, government, industrial, commercial and personal sectors.  Indeed, the FAA predicts that as many as 30,000 drones will be operating in U.S. airspace by 2020.  So far, twenty states have enacted some form of drone regulation, and the vast majority of states will consider new or additional regulations in 2015.

The Washington State Legislature passed drone legislation (EHB 2789) in March, 2014, but it was vetoed by Governor Inslee, who issued a fifteen-month moratorium on the purchase of drones by executive branch agencies and established a taskforce to propose regulatory guidelines.  The 2015 Legislature will debate and likely pass momentous drone legislation.  This article makes several observations and suggestions regarding this process.

First and foremost, drones cannot be treated as a monolithic entity, as there are hundreds of different potential applications for drones.  Different segments of drone uses need to be regulated in different ways.  The general public tends to have a jaundiced view of drones, due to their controversial military applications (e.g., Predator drone strikes), their use in border enforcement, and their potential for invasive domestic surveillance.  Even more concerning is the possibility for the illegal use of drones in criminal endeavors – to carry out assassinations or bombings; to conduct illicit surveillance to facilitate kidnappings or burglaries; etc.

On the other hand, there are numerous drone applications in the public sphere that are unequivocally beneficial.  For example, drones can be used to fight fires, monitor wildlife to assess endangered species populations, monitor ice flows for maritime safety, analyze beaches using infrared sensors to predict shellfish harvests, and for search and rescue missions (e.g., to search for missing persons during an avalanche or mudslide), etc.  There are also valuable industrial applications – using drones in the agricultural sector to monitor crops, surveying oil and gas pipelines for structural damage, filming for motion pictures, etc.  There are controversial commercial applications, such as using drones to provide remote photographic tours of homes to support real estate sales, for package delivery service, etc.  Finally, there are many potential personal uses for drones, including flying for hobby and facilitating hunting (a use that has already been banned in several states).

Individuals will vary in their assessments of these various applications.  The essential point here is that it is not helpful to think of drones as singularly good or evil, but rather as a technology with hundreds of potential applications – some clearly positive, some quite alarming, and some with ambivalent characteristics.  For this reason, simple approaches to drone regulation – making all drones illegal, or arguing that regulation is unnecessary – are untenable.  Beneficial uses of drones should be legalized (and quickly, as the U.S. already lags a number of nations in public and industrial drone use), and negative drone applications should be banned.

Second, drone regulation involves a vast array of issues, including airspace safety, public safety, crime, personal freedom, government surveillance, civil liberties, industrial competitiveness, cultural values, societal aesthetics, etc.  Accordingly, drone regulations will exist at multiple levels of government, involve a wide range of interest groups (e.g., corporations, business associations, the ACLU, the NRA, and many more), and involve massive amounts of lobbying.  There are also myriad regulatory dimensions:  which uses should be legal?; which government entities can use drones and under what circumstances?; public disclosure requirements; size and weight limits; flight altitude limits; whether drones can only be operated in line of sight conditions; whether all drones should be registered; etc.  Moreover, a plethora of difficult legal questions emanate from the regulatory debates on drones.  For example, if the government is not allowed to use drones to monitor public activity but is allowed to use drones to support rescue operations in the aftermath of an emergency, and said drones inadvertently capture a crime on film, can this footage be admitted in court?  The novelty of drones, the range of legal issues they entail, and their importance to society ensures that the process of establishing regulations will be both complex and controversial.

Third, drones should be considered as part of a broader technological movement toward devices that both use and generate tremendous amounts of information on public activity, and as such involve a number of legal and ethical issues.  Such devices include drones, driverless cars, the internet of things (linking appliances to the internet, for example), the smart grid, police body cameras, etc.  Drone regulations should be developed in a manner that promotes regulatory consistency within this broader technological environment.

Fourth, drones represent a specific type of regulatory challenge whereby the sum of appropriate discrete decisions may yield an inappropriate end result due to excessive drone prevalence.  In other words, even if there are a considerable number of drone uses that merit legality when evaluated individually, making all of them legal may create an environment where drones are too ubiquitous and too omnipresent (the so-called drone “creep factor”), thus violating the cultural and/or aesthetic standards of the state and its communities.  Thus, discrete drone regulations must be developed within the context of an overall vision for an acceptable level of this technology within society.

Fifth, public knowledge and awareness is lagging in this important area.  A low percentage of the populace is well-versed in the wide range of potential drone applications, let alone the complexity of the regulatory issues inherent to the subject.  This is a high-stakes, multifaceted topic, with complex legal issues and myriad stakeholders, and it has the potential to significantly alter the physical and cultural topographies of Washington State.  Given that major legislation in this realm is likely just months away in Olympia, It is important for citizens to engage in the debate over the many challenges and opportunities of this emergent technology.

John Stafford is a substitute teacher for Seattle Public Schools and a former management consultant in corporate strategy.  He recently completed a run for State Senate in the 37th District.  He is writing a monthly article on public policy for the South Seattle Emerald.

Photo is under a Creative Commons License and courtesy of Lee on Flickr