After Venezuela

February 1, 2019

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro survived an assassination attempt over the weekend. Acts of terror aimed at political officials are not new, but the execution of this incident was: drones carrying explosives.

The current drone airspace is like the beginnings of aviation in the 1920s — outdated legislation and a lack of enforcement has allowed malicious and reckless drone pilots to wreak havoc.

Drones have the potential to revolutionize the world. They already provide benefit in numerous sectors, including search and rescue, public safety, and national security. But, to maximize their potential for good, we first need to be able to hold pilots accountable.

It’s no surprise that technologies can be used both to benefit and to harm. In fact, they tend to have good and bad effects “at the same time and in virtue of each other.” Especially technologies that lower the barriers to entry, allowing for novices and those with criminal intent to operate without restriction.

This is what's happening with the drone airspace.

Consider that UAVs have been cast before in exact opposite roles than in Venezuela—for example, the Secret Service has been exploring the possibility of using drones to protect the President. While drones provide the ability to threaten VIPs, as demonstrated in Venezuela, they can also scout areas to secure them. The same capabilities that enable criminal mischief — that drones are small, light, and can carry payloads — also allow the Secret Service to monitor the President’s vicinity for threats.

The challenge, as with all new technologies, is to minimize the potential for harm and abuse while laying the legal and cultural groundwork to optimize their potential for good. And as with other technologies, this requires a multi-pronged approach. For one, it requires the cultivation of a responsible culture around the new technology.

Notice there is less hysteria around remote controlled (RC) aircraft, though those have been around for decades. Part of the explanation is the RC community is small and tight-knit, and the planes require specialized training and lots of time dedicated to flying. Learning to fly an RC plane practically requires that a person integrate themselves into a responsible community. In contrast, the proliferation of drones has outstripped the growth of any similar culture — they are so cheap to purchase and so easy to fly that nearly anyone can pilot one.

But the cultural component can only be so effective. Appropriate technologies have to be developed and regulatory frameworks must be put into place to lay the groundwork for the responsible and safe integration of drones into the airspace. This includes, for example, the development of reliable remote identification protocols to ensure accountability, and that counter-unmanned aircraft system (C-UAS) technologies provide law enforcement with the necessary tools to protect the public against clueless, careless, and criminal drone pilots.

Developing these tools requires a delicate balance between privacy and public safety. This is why new technologies need to be introduced with ethical considerations. In order to ensure that drones integrate effectively, we must implement a way to responsibly address their potential risks.

Integrating drones into the airspace also means clarifying the regulatory framework for counter-drone law enforcement and streamlining the process of pilot licensing and education. Several bills before Congress promise to do just this.

The same process has taken place with automobiles: astounding improvements in driver safety over the last 100 years are due in part to phenomenal technological safety features, but also a culture that vigorously disciplines drunk and irresponsible driving. As these two processes co-evolve, the entire sector is lifted: the positive impacts spread, the negative uses diminish, and the social attitudes towards the technology move from anxious to enthusiastic.

Drones are changing our planet and their sales are only increasing. Their capability to both protect and destroy is already evident. To change that, we must nurture a responsible culture, develop appropriate technologies, and implement sensible drone regulation.

If we don’t act quickly, drones will be known for carrying explosives, not protecting us from them.