The Age of Drones Is upon Us

A spate of articles on both the left and right on the proliferation of – and threats posed by – drones is worth examination on the broader picture.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), commonly known as a drones, are sometimes (in the military) also referred to as remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) by the International Civil Aviation Organization.  Their flight, as we know from the last James Bond flick, where Jeremy Renner was stalked and chased from thousands of feet above the forest, is controlled autonomously by onboard computers or by remote control, by trained military engineers expert in their use in war, and now wrangled by cell phone and tablet apps.

Homeowners have been harassed by drones hovering over their property, looking at sunbathers, perhaps, or at objects to steal.  Their reasonable efforts to down these somewhat creepy aerial surveillance devices have often, unfairly, resulted in the property owners being fined, or worse.  In the case of one infuriated father protecting his daughter from observation via drone, he was arrested and charged with “felony wanton endangerment and criminal mischief.”  Had outraged property owners used a brick, say, or a boomerang, even, to knock the drone out of their airspace, would the  courts be more lenient than to those using small arms to bring these objectionable high-flying intruders down?

What constitutes harassment?  Where is the boundary of private property?  How can an individual protect herself from intense intrusions, spying, flybys?  What future dangers have to be accounted-for and regulated or defended against?

The law, so far, is mum.

Apparently, as cases have shown in court, unless your actual property is threatened or damaged, you can’t shoot these things.  Worse, those defending themselves and their families from these buzzing breakers of privacy rights have been sued by drone owners for wrecking their beloved property.

Recall that buildings have air rights, as do countries and states.  Turkey won’t let Israeli planes overfly their land in order to perform a self-defensive action.  Iran, same thing.  Air rights are real rights.  Don’t citizens of the United States have rights in their own backyards and living rooms from the casual perversions or hobbies of malign pinheads or dangerous subverters?

Recall that the technology has been successfully used to kill terrorists in the Middle East quagmire of ISIS and their rancid branch franchises.  The example has already been set, and it does not bode well for regular homeowners and city-dwellers helpless in the face of infestations of such readily available pests.  What is an adult toy to proponents and housebound gamers is not a joke to those being spied on or stalked by the many-legged, camera-equipped mechanical tarantulas.  The principle has been effectively deployed for years already.  What guarantees that operators of these random drones are well-intentioned?

A friend on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, three blocks from where we hang our shingle, was startled to look out her Trump-building window overlooking the Hudson to see a drone staring steadily into her apartment.  Not having a shotgun to shoo it away, she called 911.  The police shrug: “Were you touched?  Did your stuff get damaged?”

One drone owner’s lawyer, suing a homeowner who shot down a drone, sneered, “You’re only privileged to use reasonable force in defense of property. Shooting …at this thing that isn’t threatening your property isn’t reasonable.”  How much invasion of privacy can you tolerate?

The technology has burgeoned beyond the legal remedies or strictures necessary for orderly conduct.

Recent bruited news items noted that a number of airplanes, large jumbos as well as smaller 4-seaters, have been accosted by unwonted drone activity in close proximity.  So far, these are still just near-accidents.  Drones hovering near landing strips and airport approach pathways imperil thousands and bring to mind the safety of our air flight worldwide, even if, thus far, pilots have expertly evaded the threat of careless – or deliberate – such encroachment.

Years of red-pointer flashing into pilot compartments have continued, largely because police and safety forces have been unable to pin down the sources of these dangerous “pranks.”  But the pointers, as everyone knows, blind pilots, and they come within the definition of criminal acts designed  to bring down  air carriers.

In the past year, alarm-fomenter 60 Minutes did a relatively tame piece on Amazon and its delivery schedule of drones in the near future.  That future is already here.  Three years ago, Jeremy Renner was chased through the forest by high-flying remotely operated drones in the 5th iteration of the “Bourne” franchise. The drones “missed” only because Renner was a champ runner, artificially smartened up, and the plot needed him to survive.  But they hit other major targets with maximum prejudice.

The issue is not partisan.  Drones delivering prosaic Häagen-Dazs or groceries may seem, on the surface, conveniences.  But a recent air drop of marijuana, heroin, and tobacco into a prison recreation yard poses yet another problem: how can the average consumer be convenienced while illicit use and deploy of such devices is moderated, outlawed, or severely restricted?  Under the present administration, the country has been over-regulated to an astounding degree, but important regulation that urgently needs attention is ignored in favor of trendy issues that are unscientific and unfounded.

The domestic spying industry is delighted with the brisk pace – and the costs – of its lightweight, camera-equipped, app-regulated aircraft.

Here’s one ad for a high-end domestic drone:

The Parrot AR Drone 2.0, roughly $300, allows average citizens to aerially spy on anyone they can. The miniature drone is controlled by using an app on the iPhone or iPad. The aircraft itself features multiple sensors that include high-definition front-facing 720p camera and vertical camera that aim straight down from bottom of the quadricopter. Machine itself is lightweight, easily transported.

Low-end drones are purchasable for $200 or so.  So they are available for the cost of one meal at Per Se.  It doesn’t take an astrophysicist to see that mischief can be had for a fraction of one’s paycheck, BBHO, Before Obama.

How many are around?  All tech experts swing majorly bullish about the industry’s future.  Chris Anderson of 3D Robotics estimates that at least half a million were sold the U.S. in 2014 (though solid numbers won’t be available for some time, when all aspects of sales are taken into account).  His company expects to best $40 million in sales this year.  That is roughly 53,000 units, not counting accessories.  But wait.  That’s just the baby start: the Washington Post cites the FAA as estimating that domestic sales will do better than $90 billon inside the decade.

Recently, one such drone clumsily sallied onto the White House lawn.  How did the Secret Service know it was not tricked out with bomb-materials, powdered ricin, diseased organisms, or something else lethal to the residents and workers of the White House?

Just as you, Mr. or Ms. Joe Bag O’Bagels, have no way of knowing if that UAV/RPA is delivering Dominick’s mushroom ’za or self-adjusting multiple-repeating gunshot.  You don’t.

The time to call police, and await their arrival, is too long for the instantaneous nature of the threat.  Several states have authorized drone bring-downs with firearms, waiving hunting license requirements.

Defending oneself and one’s family, as with invasion or attack of any sort, ought not be a felonious action. Definitions of what level of threat is posed are needed, adequate certification of sizes and types of UAVs, as well as reasonable response and defense level.

Though the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act restricts private drone use to hobby or recreational purposes within the operator’s visual line of sight, obviously few are heeding the act.

Legislators and the FAA: get off the stick already.