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The Drone Industrialists: 'Don't Watch Us, We'll Watch You'

The Wifi password at this year’s conference on Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) was “DONTSAYDRONES.” It was printed and posted up in the pressroom of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., warning reporters not to unleash the offensive word while doing an interview. At one of the world’s biggest UAS conventions, drones did not exist.

Exhibitors instead flaunted their products like toys. Visitors demoed UAS in air, ground, and water spaces within the exhibit hall, which extended the length of a couple of football fields. There were onscreen displays, where attendees could fly virtual drones using a video game controller. Upstairs there were presentations on how UAS might be used to fight forest fires or quickly transport organs to hospitals on a moment’s notice.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), which organized this week’s event and is the industry’s main lobbying group, has done a good job of sanitizing the business they’re in. There was no talk of drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan or of Customs Border Patrol, Homeland Security and the FBI using drones at home. There were no booths dedicated to the public’s interest, as a way of addressing the legal framework for the growing industry. The only government agency present was the FAA, who’s jurisdiction is restricted to regulating air traffic – they’re not concerned with secrecy, privacy, and whether or not domestic law enforcement agencies, for example, can militarize their drones. 

“Privacy is the reason that so many states have short-term bans. I call this dealing with the wackjobs.” –Daryl Jenkins

The three-day show ignored this already existing drone industry, which specializes in death. There was little said about the Pentagon’s 7,000 aerial drones, which collectively have killed, and the numbers are shaky because of secrecy, around 3,000 people without due process. Many activists, including Code Pink, which protested outside the convention Tuesday, are worried about this precedent — the lack of regulation surrounding the use of drones abroad could be a harbinger of their use at home.

43 states have introduced 115 bills and resolutions to regulate drone usage at home, with ten of those bills being passed in eight states. Mead Treadwell, Alaska’s Lieutenant Governor, became a lone voice at the convention when he questioned the industry’s opposition to regulation.

“One of the unique and new characteristics of UAV technology is its capability for persistence,” he said Tuesday, “and with persistence you can . . . collect lots of information…you need a warrant.”

Executives and company analysts are assuring the public that the industry will regulate itself. The potential for abuse, they say, is paranoia and ought not to be taken seriously.

“One of the biggest problems of going to commercialization is privacy, mostly due to our own government’s actions,” said Daryl Jenkins, a former George Washington University professor who authored a widely cited study on the economic impacts of the rising UAS industry. “Privacy is the reason that so many states have short-term bans. I call this dealing with the wackjobs. If you’re around me, you’ll hear me use terms like fruitcake and wackjobs and that’s what I learned in my PhD programs.”

Jenkins estimates that the UAS industry will add some 100,000 jobs and generate $82.1 billion by 2025. Jenkins, an airline and aviation company consultant, notably has some $200 million dollars of his own that he looks forward to pouring into the nascent industry. The possibilities for generating revenue are endless and exciting, he says.

“Will companies give UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, another term for UAS) away for free in exchange for data?” he suggested to the audience.

The only barriers are the states’ proposed laws, he said, adding that businesses should be able to regulate themselves.

We’ll “put together an ethical code or standard that everyone subscribes to,” he said. “We can handle it ourselves.”

Thomas Hedges

Thomas Hedges works for the Center for Responsive Law in Washington, DC

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