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Why a Drone-Dominated World Will Demand Interdisciplinary Policymaking

credit: karen axelrad via flickr

(Photo: Karen Axelrad via flickr)

Global headlines this week are focused on U.S. military drone attacks in Pakistan. But a conference in New York last weekend addressed the myriad additional policy implications of a consumer-drone-dominated world.

Wish you could have been a fly on the wall for the first-ever Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference (DARC)? In a podcast broadcast by Drone U on Slate, meeting co-chair Christopher Wong, executive director of the Engelberg Center on Innovation Law & Policy at the New York University School of Law, recaps the top issues on the table there.

To back up: Drone U was founded by Nabiha Syed, a Yale Law School graduate and fellow of the Yale Information Society Project, whose family is from Pakistan, and Timothy Reuter, a drone maker and graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who works in Washington as a senior advisor on international development issues. Their mission is to educate the public about the social, technological, and policy implications for a society in which unmanned aerial vehicles—a.k.a. drones—transform fields ranging from agriculture, to environmental conservation, to movie making, to journalism.

Indeed, Wong says “drones are about more than potential surveillance abuse and targeted killings.” The consensus among DARC-goers, he says, is that the “opportunity to guide law and policy around technology that has yet to arrive presents a real urgency for us to collaboratively shape the way drones are incorporated into our lives.” They say it will require a massively interdisciplinary approach.

The DARC crowd foresees a not-far-off future in which “networks of autonomous robots roam the skies, performing everything from law enforcement to communications, to crop dusting, shipping, and logistics.” Wong cites a Federal Aviation Administration estimate that there will be 30,000 unmanned aerial vehicles in American skies by 2020. “That’s the future that the aerospace industry, the government, and a new class of entrepreneurs are busy preparing,” he says.

The upsides are appealing: 100,000 new jobs, a transformation of industries, and an $82 billion contribution to the U.S. GDP by 2025, according to one industry association.

But Wong notes that regulators trying to craft rules for technology that could be equally applicable to Domino’s Pizza and the U.S. Air Force—and that anyone can obtain for around $100 on Amazon—are handicapped by a “severe experiential deficit.” What’s more, each agency with interests in drones—from NASA to NTSB to NOAA to U.S. Customs and Border Protection to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office—has different priorities and expertise.

To help guide policy ahead of mainstream drone adoption, Wong and colleagues have established DroneLab.org, an online resource for contributing to the legal and policymaking discussion about aerial robots. Among their top concerns: Privacy, especially related to the vertical airway over private and public spaces (will a homeowner have privacy rights against a neighbor’s drones hovering in the air above her backyard, for instance?); embedding ethical and social values into technical and functional specifications for drone design; technical design standards that ensure safety and sound drone engineering; how tort law “would work in a word filled with flying robots”; and protections for the multiple patented components and copyrighted software that run drones while the platforms become the next frontier for app developers.

Another topical discussion at DARC: How will we keep an eye on things that have an eye on us? Drone license plates?

Listen on Slate to Wong’s 12-minute podcast.

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