Skip to main content

Drones over America? Time for debate

By Daniel Suarez, Special to CNN
November 12, 2013 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Daniel Suarez: FAA releases road map for drones in civilian airspace by 2015
  • He says privacy advocates complain but believes FAA's approach is sound
  • He says civilian drones inevitable and useful; we must hash out best guidelines
  • Suarez: Outcry over aircraft resulted in formation of FAA; drone debate is necessary

Editor's note: Daniel Suarez is the author of "Daemon," "Freedom," "Kill Decision" and the upcoming "Influx," high-tech and sci-fi thrillers that focus on technology-driven change. A former systems consultant to Fortune 1000 companies, he has designed and developed mission-critical software for the defense, finance and entertainment industries.

(CNN) -- On Thursday, the Federal Aviation Administration released its "Road Map" to integrate drones into civilian airspace by 2015, and it provoked strong reactions from privacy advocates. I've been a vocal critic against the creation of lethally autonomous combat drones, so you might expect I'd be concerned about the vague civilian privacy protections the FAA proposed for their six domestic drone test sites.

But actually I think their approach is a good one.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta rightly pointed out that his organization is focused on maintaining aviation safety and not proposing new privacy regulations.

Daniel Suarez
Daniel Suarez

The 74-page FAA civilian drone road map focuses a lot on developing "sense and avoid" technology to enable civilian drones to operate safely in skies already crowded with manned aircraft. But each of the test sites will come up with its own drone privacy policies and make them public, to (as the FAA put it) "help inform the dialogue."

Consider that last statement the starting gun for what promises to be a vociferous and active debate on robotic vehicles in an open society. This is a debate that needs to happen, and with the FAA establishing these six "sand boxes" in which to practice various drone privacy approaches, we'll see the good, the bad and the just plain ugly well before regulations are more widely adopted.

That might sound messy, but this is how an open society should ingest revolutionary technologies -- by arguing like hell about them.

And make no mistake, there will be a constituency speaking on behalf of drones. That's because in the next three years, civilian drones -- that is Unmanned Aerial Systems -- could be a $10 billion industry (with part of that presumably spent on public relations). And on both sides of this struggle, the first combatants will be legions of lawyers arguing drone law and establishing legal precedents in local, state and federal courts.

"In case you missed the starting gun for the civilian drone privacy debate --it's just been sounded."

This has happened before. Few will remember that at the birth of aviation, property laws were such that landowners owned the air above their heads, too-- theoretically all the way up into space. And landowners were not happy with the idea of aircraft noisily "trespassing" over their property, and yet it was difficult for aviators to fly only over public right-of-ways, especially in poor weather conditions.

What followed were legal battles, with one railroad trying to stop rival airmail by claiming "aerial trespass" if aviators followed their rail lines. There was aviation litigation about wrongful deaths, noise pollution, canceled flights, air crew working conditions, deferred maintenance, etc.

Eventually all that debate, legal precedent and working knowledge was boiled down into a regulatory framework that became the Federal Aviation Administration. Few would argue that FAA regulation has harmed the aviation industry or society. Just ask yourself if you'd be willing to step on an unregulated commercial aircraft. I thought so. Those regulations made a level playing field for airlines and allowed the entire industry to prosper while simultaneously benefiting the public.

But getting there wasn't pretty.

And so it will be with civilian drones. It will take the passionate debate of civil rights activists, entrepreneurs, hobbyists, aerospace engineers, farmers, environmentalists, ethicists and many more for society to arrive at a stable legal framework to safely and equitably integrate robotic aviation and autonomous vehicles into our society.

There is no agency or bureau that will do this for us, and these are thorny issues.

For every privacy activist I agree with on the subject of drones, there is also someone with a compelling vision of how they could be used for good, such as entrepreneurs who envision precision agriculture drones that could reduce pesticide use through surgically precise and infinitely patient ministering to crops. Agriculture alone could represent 80% of the civilian drone industry. And as one drone industry executive put it: "corn doesn't mind if you watch it."

In case you missed the starting gun for the civilian drone privacy debate, it's just been sounded.

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Daniel Suarez.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 1750 GMT (0150 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT