Iraqi Kurdish soldiers and Syrian rebels join the battle against ISIS in Kobani, the search continues for missing students in Mexico, and the last U.S. Marines pull out of a key base in Afghanistan. A panel of journalists joins guest host Susan Page for a conversation about the week's top international stories.
Many say it’s only a matter of time before unmanned aircraft, otherwise known as drones, are used routinely for such tasks as traffic monitoring, battling forest fires and looking for lost children. The government already uses surveillance drones to monitor our border with Mexico. Some police departments and a few universities have permits to use them as well. The Federal Aviation Administration has been charged with coming up with a plan for widespread commercial use by 2015, but many say safety and privacy issues need to be addressed. Join us for a debate over the rules for domestic drones.
- Todd Humphreys assistant professor, aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics, University of Texas, Austin
- Michael Toscano president and CEO of AUVSI, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
- Marc Rotenberg executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and teaches Information Privacy Law at Georgetown University Law Center.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is out sick. Unmanned remote-controlled aircraft -- that is, drones -- could be used to find lost hikers, track dangerous storms or support law enforcement. But some warn that safety and privacy issues need to be resolved first. Joining me to talk about issues raised by the potential widespread use of domestic drones, Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. MARC ROTENBERGHi, Susan.
PAGEMichael Toscano of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, thanks for being with us.
MR. MICHAEL TOSCANOGood morning, Susan. Thank you.
PAGEAnd from a studio at the University of Texas, Austin, Todd Humphreys of the university's radio navigation laboratory. Thanks for being with us.
PROF. TODD HUMPHREYSHi, Susan. Good to be with you.
PAGEWe welcome our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number. That's 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Michael, let's start with you. These unmanned, remote-controlled aerial vehicles have huge potential uses. What are they?
TOSCANOWell, first of all, when you look at a revolutionary technology like unmanned systems, whether it be air, ground or maritime -- in this particular aspect, we're talking about the air side in these unmanned air vehicles -- there's a tremendous opportunity to use these systems, to save lives and save money.
TOSCANOWe've identified as you -- in your opening remarks, just a couple of a few. But when you look at how many women perform their missions like search and rescue, firefighting, natural disasters, all of the public safety-type aspects of law enforcement, monitoring of wildlife, oil and gas, the list goes on and on of how these systems can act as a complimentary to the men and women that do those jobs.
PAGEAnd we -- I think most Americans, when they hear the word drones, they think of the drones that are used -- have been used in Afghanistan, in Pakistan and elsewhere. How do these drones -- these domestic drones compare with those military drones?
TOSCANOWell, the Department of Defense spent about 30 years developing these unmanned air systems, and as of late, you're seeing more and more of that application being used. And basically, there isn't a mission that a unmanned air vehicle is achieving that can't be done with a manned system. But the government has realized that by using these unmanned systems, you can save lives and save money, be more effective and efficient in using this. So it's a technology that allows those men and women to do that job better.
PAGESo, Todd, to what extent has the experience that we've gotten with the Pentagon and the CIA in these military drones have -- are those, the applications we're seeing now, being used domestically?
HUMPHREYSNo, not at all, except in the case -- first of all, none of the domestic uses are weaponized and thankfully so. The technology for surveillance is the kind of technology that might be deployed on a domestic front, but certainly -- and for transport of medical equipment and other equipment but certainly not any kind of drone strikes. And in fact, it's -- I believe it's the use of drones abroad for drone strikes that has kind of colored the public perception here domestically, especially in America, about the use of drones. And we tend to conflate drones or UAVs with their militarized applications.
PAGEWell, they're different because they wouldn't have, as you say, weapons on them domestically, presumably. But other than that, are they the same? Or are they different in the way they work or in their size or look?
HUMPHREYSThose that are patrolling our Southern border here in Texas are Predator-class drones, just like the ones used abroad, except they aren't weaponized. But there are broad classes of drones. There are hobby drones that you can buy for a couple hundred dollars on the Internet, and there are do-it-yourself drones. You can make them at home or in a laboratory. So there's much broader spectrum. And I would say smaller is the trend for domestic use, especially among the hobbyist community.
PAGEDo you have a drone yourself?
HUMPHREYSI do. I have a couple.
PAGEAnd how do you use them?
HUMPHREYSWell, first one was one I bought for my 6-year-old son, in fact, and we play with it in the backyard. It's a tiny little thing, only $20 on Amazon. And yet you consider it an unmanned aerial vehicle. It's a little model helicopter. The other drone we have is a more serious one. It's used in our radio navigation lab, and it's an $80,000 device. We use it to probe the limits of navigation security for these drones and to better understand the threats against their security.
PAGESo, Marc, fighting forest fires or a toy for a 6-year-old child, that sounds pretty benign. What are your concerns when it comes to these domestic drones?
ROTENBERGSusan, I don't think there's any doubt that the technology has many beneficial applications, and Michael and Todd have described several. But there are also some obvious risks, and one is a safety risk. When you put the devices in the air, someone has to be responsible that they don't come crashing down. That's a core concern right now of the FAA, which has undertaken a public comment process to try to ensure that we have adequate safety for the anticipated many more drones flying in the U.S. airspace.
ROTENBERGBut the second issue and the issue that we've really pressed the FAA to look at is the privacy issue because we know that the technology also has the ability to conduct surveillance in a way that hasn't been done previously. We will have may more eyes in the sky looking down at us, recording detailed images, saving that imagery and using it for other purposes. And we think there need to be some baseline standards at the beginning before that process starts.
PAGEBut if you have a drone in the sky, it presumably can only see things that are happening in public spaces, right? It can't see inside houses or inside buildings. So what is the privacy concern when it comes to what a drone might see from the sky?
ROTENBERGWell, those lines turn out to be a bit blurry. I mean, for example, you can use a drone to go up the side of a building and look into rooms through windows, which you couldn't have done in the past. That's a type of surveillance that's enabled by these small devices, over which there's a great deal of control and maneuverability.
ROTENBERGI also think, as a general matter, when we think about people being in public, it doesn't mean that they've given up all their privacy rights. We think about privacy in terms of what other people can observe or what other people can hear. We don't think in terms of technologies that might peer down from us from, you know, 5,000 feet or look through our clothing. Technology does that. It doesn't mean that we don't have a privacy claim.
PAGECan drones record audio, too? Can they hear what you're saying?
ROTENBERGYes, if they're close enough. And some drones are equipped with audio devices. But most of the interesting discussion right now is on the imaging technology because the quality of the imaging technology has improved dramatically over the last several years, which means that a drone at a great distance, something that you could not observe, could be observing you.
PAGEWell, Michael, we know that we've heard a lot of concern from Americans, from citizens, from some local governments about potential abuses or privacy concerns about drones. How do you respond to that?
TOSCANOWell, first of all, let me say Marc is correct that safety is paramount in unmanned systems. And that's one of the things that the industry is very, very much conscious of and putting a tremendous amount of effort to make sure that these systems are in fact safe. And when you talk about the FAA, it is their responsibility to make sure that anything that goes into the national airspace, one can sense and avoid or see and avoid anything else that's in the airspace, and secondly, to do no harm, to not fall out of the sky that -- or cause any damages.
TOSCANOThe part that I would disagree, though, with Marc is that the FAA is not responsible for privacy. Privacy is the responsibility of the courts, of the legal system, the Fourth Amendment, the states that regulate privacy. And I would contend to you that you can have invasion of your privacy done in a variety of different ways by manned systems, unmanned systems, other capabilities out there. You can have an individual that's on the next building over. They can look through your window. If they violate the privacy laws, they should be punished.
PAGETodd, tell me, what are the current rules when it comes to aerial surveillance? Can anybody buy a drone or build a drone and operate it at will? What are the rules now?
HUMPHREYSWell, the rule is divided into two categories, one for the hobbyists or for the amateur operators, and the other category is for commercial drone flight, anytime you're doing something for hire or money is exchanged. And for the hobbyists, really, the FAA guidelines suggest that hobbyists adhere to the same guidelines that general American model airplane groups adhere to.
HUMPHREYSAnd they're only suggestions. They're only guidelines. There isn't any real teeth to them. And so typically, we see hobbyists flying their unmanned vehicles up to maybe 400 feet, and it's all line-of-sight activity. They have to keep their drone within their line of sight. Now, the commercial realm right now is fairly limited.
HUMPHREYSWe have to request what's called a certificate of authorization for drone use from the FAA, and those requests are fairly well-vetted and only a few hundred of them have been released. So if you're a hobbyist and can claim to be a hobbyist, then it's fairly open and forgiving. But if you're looking to make some money with a commercial drone, it's not so forgiving. And that's part of the reason behind the push toward opening up our skies to commercial drones.
PAGESo the FAA has been tasked with coming up with rules to regulate the commercial use of drones by 2015. And, Marc, we just heard Michael say that they shouldn't be concerned with privacy issues. That's not an FAA concern. Do you agree with that? Or do you think these rules should take into account privacy concerns?
ROTENBERGWell, I disagree with that. We think the FAA, because it has the regulatory authority to license the use of drones in the U.S. domestic airspace, has to consider all the dimensions of domestic drone use. And it's clear that the public is concerned about the privacy issue. Now, I don't think that the public concern about the privacy issue should mean that we don't have domestic drones. I do think it means that we're going to need to set up some regulations.
ROTENBERGSo actually a year ago, EPIC petitioned the FAA, and we said to the agency, we know you're planning to do safety regulations. We'd like you also to do privacy regulations. And we got some good news last week because we heard from the general counsel of the FAA, who wrote to me to say, well, as we begin this process, we do intend to look at privacy issues, and we do intend to develop some guidelines.
ROTENBERGSo there's now an opportunity to think about what kinds of privacy safeguards we should establish. And I think this is a very important moment, actually. We're at one of those inflection points with new technologies. As Todd said, right now, there are just a few hundred that are licensed in the U.S. Over the next five years, we could have up to 30,000.
PAGEThirty thousand drones, that sounds like a huge number, Michael.
TOSCANOWell, when you use that figure, you got to consider -- right now what the FAA re-authorization bill that was passed in 2012 stated that we're talking about things that are less than 55 pounds. And the majority of these things are less than five pounds. And these things are only going to fly about 400 feet.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we'll continue our conversation about the use and expansion of domestic drones and we'll take some of your calls. Our phone lines are open, 1-800-433-8850. Give us a call. Or send us an email at email@example.com. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page with USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio: Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. He teaches information privacy law at Georgetown University Law Center. And Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. And joining us from the University of Texas in Austin is Todd Humphreys.
PAGEHe's an assistant professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics and director of the university's Radionavigation Laboratory. We're going to go to the phones in just a few minutes. But first, let me ask you, what kind of limits are now being discussed in Congress when it comes to the use of domestic drones 'cause I know I've heard Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky among others expressing great concerns about potential abuses of domestic drones?
ROTENBERGWell, one of the big concerns right now, of course, is that the government could use domestic drones as a form of warrantless surveillance, gathering evidence for criminal investigations that becomes the basis for prosecution. And Congress has actually taken steps to limit that because the idea that the government would have available the entire, you know, nation to observe and then decide who to investigate and prosecute, I think, you know upsets people across the political spectrum.
ROTENBERGSo that's one of the limitations that's already in place. But beyond that, there are clearly concerns about the private use of surveillance drones, whether it's for stalking or by private investigators and others. Some need to limit there. Questions about how the information that's being collected is going to be used. It's one thing to say that we need emergency response teams, we need to be able to handle natural disasters. I don't think anyone would object to that. It would be quite another to take information and re-use it or repurpose it for commercial use.
PAGEWell, at this point, if a law enforcement agency wanted to use a drone to get information about somebody, a suspect, do they have to get a warrant?
ROTENBERGWell, generally speaking, yes. It depends, you know, I have to be a little bit careful here because I know the court has said that at a distance, people don't have an expectation of privacy for aerial surveillance. But I think when we're talking about these drones, which are actually much closer to the ground and have greater maneuverability.
ROTENBERGThere you get into some interesting questions as to whether a warrant would be required. And I think the courts will look at that scenario a bit more closely. But, regardless of how the courts come down on this, Congress can still say as a matter of public law, if the government is going to use this technique, there has to be warrant standard before evidence maybe used in a criminal proceeding.
TOSCANOYou know, I think, rather than limit the use of UASes, I think it's important that the industry support the transparency of these measures for the appropriate means to protect the privacy of individuals. AUVSI supports requiring search warrants when the technology, both manned or unmanned, is used to invade someone's right to privacy. That's the law. So as long as we abide by the law, this technology should be able to take advantage of all those good uses that we've identified and still be able to maintain the assurance that an individual's privacy rights are being upheld.
PAGESo, Michael, do you think there is no need for any additional legislation on this because it's already covered?
TOSCANOI think it's important that we continue to have open dialogue and exchange of information to make sure that the concerns that are being raised with this revolutionary-type technology are addressed to meet those needs of the public and make sure that we help humanity.
PAGEAnd, Marc, there have been, I think, 10 or 11 states that have either passed laws or considering laws that would regulate the use of domestic drones. What kind of legislation have states been looking at?
ROTENBERGWell, I think the laws that are being adopted in Oregon, for example, which basically limit the police use of drones are fascinating. I think they reflect this fundamental concern that there has to be some control, particularly over the government's ability to conduct open-ended surveillance. And the trend in the states is toward greater protections. The question now is whether we can get legislation in Washington that both respects what the states have done and covers as well the states that have not addressed the drone privacy issue.
PAGELet's go to the phones and let some of our listeners join our conversation. We'll go first to Eric. He's calling us from South Haven, Mich. Eric, you're on the air.
ERICHi. Thank you for taking my call. I am a pilot. I fly an airplane in the National Airspace System. I'm concerned about safety. See-and-avoid is an ultimate backup to sensors in the cockpit, depends upon eyes in the cockpit. I have my eyes up, but the drones won't. They may depend upon sensors that will depend upon electrical components broadcasting from my airplane.
ERICBut I have an airplane that has no electrical system, so I don't have these components. I'm very concerned about 30,000 drones in the airspace. I sometimes fly below 400 feet. What can they do to protect this ultimate see-and-avoid safety issue?
PAGESo, Eric, in your flying to date, have you ever seen a drone?
ERICI have seen tethered drones, air blimps. And they're pretty big and easy to spot. But they -- and they don't move. I have seen model airplanes, and I have swerved and tried to call them on the radio because I can't distinguish between a model airplane or a drone and a real airplane. And consequences -- consequently, I have to swerve and avoid it. But luckily, I saw it.
PAGEEric, thanks so much for your call. Well, Todd, let me ask you, is there a safety concern when it comes to planes that'll be flying in the air?
HUMPHREYSThere is most definitely a safety concern here. And Eric notes what we call sense-and-avoid as one of these concerns. And I agree with him that this is one of the major hurdles we're going to have to face as we integrate drones or UAS into the national airspace. They need to be able to see, just like humans do, not through the cockpit window, but through their radio signals or through cameras, what's around them.
HUMPHREYSAnd some of the most promising technology for this is what's called ADS-B, where we broadcast our location and hope that everyone around us is broadcasting their location once per second. But the truth is that the ADS-B protocol is itself not terribly secure against hacking and so forth. So I see this sense-and-avoid problem as looming fairly large for integration.
PAGEHave there been any incidents to date, although there are not many drones in the air, between drone and an aircraft, a plane?
HUMPHREYSAs far as I know, I -- there haven't been any major incidents. But there have been problems with the drones themselves slipping into restricted airspace and having mechanical difficulties. But we just don't have the numbers in the air right now to cause much trouble.
PAGEAnd just one more question on this topic. The FAA, I know, is conducting some safety tests when it comes to these domestic drones. What can you tell us about those tests?
HUMPHREYSInterestingly, just last -- within the last few days, the FAA has opened up a solicitation for states around the country to request to be test hosts for test sites where they will practice integration of these drones in the national airspace. So what they'll be doing is kicking the tires. They'll want to find out what's difficult about bringing them in.
HUMPHREYSHow do we get them to work in harmony with manned aircraft, and what are the potential pitfalls? And I hope they'll be looking into this. They definitely will be looking into this problem of sense-and-avoid. I hope they'll also look at navigation security and even some of the privacy concerns.
PAGELet's talk to Fidel. He's calling us from Dallas, Texas. Fidel, thank you for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
FIDELHi. Yes, this is Fidel. And my own concern and any of your guests hasn't talked about this is that terrorists can use them to attack buildings, you know? And nobody has brought this, you know?
PAGEWell, Fidel, that's an interesting question. Let me ask our panel. Are there concerns that this -- well, we've already talked about domestic drones not generally being weaponized. Could they be used as a terrorist weapon?
ROTENBERGWell, I think there are certainly some people who've thought about that scenario, and I imagine that there will be great deal of sensitivity about the use of drones during -- in certain parts of the United States. But this is also the reason that the FAA will need to play an important role regulating and licensing the use of these unmanned vehicles, which is where we are right now in the policy-making process. The FAA needs to make a determination about who will be able to put these in the sky, how they will be used and what safeguards will be in place.
PAGEMichael, do you see this as a concern?
TOSCANOAgain, the FAA -- let's go back to the safety issue first. Safety is paramount, and we've stated that, and that is the role of the FAA. So over the period of time between now and 2015 or when we have integration into the national airspace -- and again, this integration is going to be done in a step-by-step process. The reason to have these six test sites is to allow us to test these unmanned systems. And, right now, we're talking about 55 pounds, less than 400 feet. Many of these systems are less than five pounds.
TOSCANOThey operate sometimes between 30 minutes and maybe an hour and a half to two hours is the limitation. When you use this technology for civil applications, you can pretty much assure that the civil units or entities are going to have to certify that the platform is airworthy. They are going to have to certify that the operator is trained. And they're most likely going to certify or attest to that the operational environment for which they're going to use these things is in an environment that is going to be conducive to a safe operation.
PAGEHere's an email question we've gotten from Tony who writes us from Cary, N.C. He says, "If I am a private detective, can I decide to start a surveillance business to track someone's husband or wife?"
TOSCANOThe answer to that would be no because it is for profit that he is using this technology. And the law says that if you're going to use this to -- for any sort of a profitability, you have to go through the FAA. You have to go through a certification, a COA, Certification of Authorization, and you have to follow the guidelines of the FAA.
PAGEBut if you went through the guidelines of the FAA and got, you know, went through the procedure so that you were authorized and your platform was airworthy and all that, could you then use it to try to track someone's husband or wife if there's a divorce proceeding or concerns about how they're behaving or whatever?
ROTENBERGWell, there are a variety of privacy laws that could come into play in that scenario. In fact, this is a wonderful exam question. Maybe I'll use it at the end of the semester. But we have the classic privacy torts, so certain types of observations of a person's private life could become a basis for a legal action. We have anti-paparazzi laws that limit the ability of photographers, for example, to peer into a person's private home that might come into play. We have Peeping Tom laws.
ROTENBERGThere are privacy theories, certainly, that people would be able to raise in those circumstances. But the reality is that the law hasn't yet confronted the widespread use of surveillance drones which is the reason that we think the FAA needs to provide some general guidance, a real legal framework, so that we have a better answer the next time that question is asked.
PAGETony, I think the students of Marc Rotenberg ought to thank you for providing them some insight into the question they may see on their final exam this year. I'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls at 1-800-433-8850. Let's go back to the phones. We've got some really interesting questions, I think, coming up. Here's Brennan who calls us from Providence, R.I. Brennan, you're on the air.
BRENNANHi, Diane. Sorry Diane is out sick. I'd just like to raise awareness about the subject of component technology for unmanned systems. I'm a robotics engineer. I work with underwater unmanned vehicles. And there are things particularly when it comes down to the navigation of these systems, it's important that these components don't get into the wrong hands. And so I think there are different levels that consumers should have access to that the military should have access to that the consumers do not, so that they don't get into direct competition.
PAGEWhat kind of -- I don't -- Brennan, what kind of components are you talking about?
BRENNANWell, it comes down to the compasses in many cases. There are the -- what's called INUs or initial navigation units but also the software behind that as well. So how well vehicles can actually navigate around the globe? They can do tremendous things if they have the right technology. And we -- the consumers probably shouldn't be able to get to that level.
PAGEIt's great on "The Diane Rehm Show" that we get calls from robotics engineers and from pilots and from others when we have topics like this. Let me ask Todd to address Brennan's question about whether there are components that only the military should have access to.
HUMPHREYSBrennan, at the very high end, that's true that inertial measurement units and INSes are mostly just in the hands of the military. But I'm afraid that the ship has already sailed here. The do-it-yourself drone community has fast closed the gap between military capability and civilian capability. And then our domestic civilian market is going to close that gap even further.
HUMPHREYSI don't really see there being much distinction between the navigation systems of civilian drones in the future and military systems. The main distinction better lie in how they're used and definitely in whether they're carrying weapons.
PAGEBrennan, thanks so much for your call. Let's go to John. He's calling us from Louisville, Ky. Hi, John.
JOHNHey. Hey, you guys. Thank you very much for having me on the air. And, you know, I have a two-fold question. I was also thinking of FLIR. Is it possible to, I mean, on the drones that you're talking about to have FLIRs?
JOHNYou know what I'm talking about.
PAGEAll right. Marc, what do you think?
ROTENBERGJohn, I think you're referring to forward looking infrared radar which is one of the ways you can enhance a drone device to detect objects, for example, that people might be carrying on the ground. And there has been -- is that correct? Is that what you're interested in?
JOHNThat is exactly what I'm talking about.
PAGEAnd I'm glad you knew that, Marc, because I didn't.
ROTENBERGWell, it's a remarkable fact about the drones because, once you, you know, put them up in the air, you can add a lot of capability. Some of it is imaging. Some of it's measuring heat. Some of it is possibility to determine chemical composition. And all of these technologies are being looked at. But these are also ways to think about enhanced surveillance. I've seen demonstrations of FLIR to make it possible to tell what, you know, someone has under their coat walking down a city street from an unmanned aerial vehicle that could be 5,000 feet, you know, in the sky. So it's actually a remarkable technology.
PAGECan you, in fact, do that now?
ROTENBERGI believe that is being tested now, but I don't think there's any routine deployment in the U.S. of that.
PAGESo this would be a drone that's flying so high, you wouldn't be able to see it?
PAGEAnd it could look into your pocket.
ROTENBERGWell, it could determine the type of material that may be under your coat, for example, a weapon.
TOSCANOIf I may make a point, when you look at an unmanned system, the thing that flies in the sky, which is basically a truck, is only about 30 percent of the system. And what it's carrying in the mission package payloads is what we're talking about. And you could put a variety of these different packages on these systems. Whether it's a manned system or an unmanned system, whether it's a satellite or not, there is technology that allows you to do these things.
TOSCANOSo the core of this issue is not the thing that's flying up in the sky but really the technology and how it's being integrated into our fabric of life. So this is what we need to have conversations in communications. It just seems that the unmanned systems is causing this to come to a head. But it's not the real issue that we're talking about.
PAGETodd, are there any other things that -- I mean, it's kind of jaw dropping to me that a drone that you couldn't see could talk -- could see what kind of material you're carrying under your coat as you walk down the street. Are there other things, technology, that's either been developed or in development that would similarly be so remarkable?
HUMPHREYSI suppose that the technology I've been most impressed by is one that has recently been seen on television. It was in a "Discovery Channel" show a while back, and it was this Argus camera that has enough pixels that they can keep a whole city under surveillance at the same time with a high-flying drone.
HUMPHREYSThey've also got infrared technology, and the FLIR is part of that. So what you're seeing is an increase in the resolution and in the kind of spectral sensitivity that these sensors have. I was just recently in the U.K., and I was surprised to learn that the U.K.'s ordinance survey does a full mapping of Great Britain down to three inches every three years.
PAGEWell, that's amazing.
HUMPHREYSAnd they do this with infrared and with a million-dollar camera. So it is...
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And joining us from the University of Texas in Austin is Todd Humphreys, an assistant professor and director of the Radionavigation Laboratory. And with me here in the studio, Michael Toscano of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, and Marc Rotenberg, he's executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and teaches at Georgetown Law School.
PAGEYou know, we've gotten a lot of response from listeners who are concerned about some of these privacy issues. Here's a tweet that's been posted: "The most insidious and scary drones aren't the large, noisy ones. It's the tiny ones that can fly up to your windows and take photos." And here is an email from Andrew who writes us from Fort Wayne, Ind. He says, "When I think of a drone, I think of something that's flying very high in the sky. But one of the people on your show mentioned that it could look in windows. Will these drones routinely descend to such an altitude?"
PAGEAnd before we address his question, here's another emailer, who says, "About a year ago, two police officers visited my home to question me about a friend facing a marijuana charge. I had little to say to the police, and their reaction was to threaten to put me under surveillance and, in their words, follow me around with a drone." So, Marc Rotenberg, could that happen?
ROTENBERGWell, I think there are scenarios under which that might happen. There are a lot of ways in which these new technologies are deployed. And one of the reasons that they're so attractive to law enforcement is it's much less expensive to have an automated process for tracking a person than it is to assign several officers. So the economic equation that makes drones so attractive to so many is also, I think, a large part of the privacy risk.
TOSCANOYou know, we've talked about that there's a tremendous application for unmanned systems. And just look at the world events that had taken place. You -- look at Fukushima, for instance. There is a case where the utilization of unmanned systems is absolutely critical in being able to limit the exposure that human beings would have. A lot of people died that didn't need to die if you had used unmanned ground and air vehicles to either assess the situation and understand what needed to be done.
TOSCANOWe talk about wildfires. And 80 percent of all firefighters are volunteers. And you've got these men and women that are risking their life to understand how to contain this blaze that's taken place. And if it's happening where there's a lot of smoke or if there's a lot of -- or nighttime, they can't utilize the manned systems that they have.
ROTENBERGI think Michael and I probably agree that on public safety functions, drones have a great benefit. And they're probably not many...
TOSCANOA lifesaving benefit.
ROTENBERGRight. But we're talking and your examples are all really about public safety, and I don't think we would make a big privacy argument in those examples. I think the more difficult question is when we get into the policing functions and when we're trying to understand how law enforcement uses unmanned drones for the purpose of gathering evidence, for the purpose of following people. It's a hard problem once we start looking at those applications.
TOSCANOThe International Association of Chief of Police put out guidelines that articulate in a very strong way the respect, the professionalism and how the utilization of this technology would be used. And then, you know, we trust these law enforcement entities to protect us. And they are given the rights to do that, and we should give them the best tools we can to follow that. Now, if they break the law, they should be held accountable for those actions.
ROTENBERGExcept right now, the law is not clear. And that's...
TOSCANOThen that's what we need to address.
ROTENBERGThat's the key problem with the deployment of drones in the United States. The law right now is clear. And I think we need to make it clear before we make a big investment in this new technology that enables so much surveillance.
PAGETodd, what's your perspective?
HUMPHREYSMy view is that the commercial UAV community should run toward regulation and not away from it. Not be afraid of it because there is an increasingly real possibility that public unease with UAVs will crescendo. And if the public senses that commercial drone proponents continue to poopoo the concerns of privacy and safety and security, then you might see more calls for blanket bans on drones. And those blanket bans might find more traction.
PAGEThat's such an interesting point, Todd. And I wonder if you think that has happened so far that advocates for drones are not taking seriously enough some of the concerns that we've heard from our listeners today.
HUMPHREYSWell, I mean, you hear Mike, and he does take this thing seriously, and other people from his organization take them seriously. But I don't think they have an affinity for regulation like I'm hoping that they will see what is wise. If they run toward the regulation, people in the U.S. might be mollified, might be soothed in their concerns. Maybe they could request certain restrictions on the use of drones or voluntarily request laws be put into place. I'm thinking of Google Street View, for example, where they blow out faces and license plates voluntarily just because people have privacy concerns.
TOSCANOAnd I think there definitely needs to be a constructive and thoughtful dialogue to understand how we can utilize this technology. I'm fully agreeing with you, Todd, in that regard. Again, we understand there's a tremendous utilization of this technology and that's great. But we also have to understand that we do have to address those concerns.
TOSCANOAnd to just blanketly (sic) say we shouldn't use them, you know, when you look at a revolutionary type technology like the Internet 50 years, there was a tremendous amount of concern on what this technology was going to be. And many of those same concerns that were raised 50 years ago is what we're hearing today. As we've utilized the Internet and understand its potential in how it can be a life-changing situation, we've adapted laws and rules and regulations to fit those to make sure that the technology is not misused.
PAGEGiven that these drones can be so small and so light and are, in some ways, pretty readily available now, is it technological possible to regulate them effectively? If you've 30,000 drones -- I mean, is it -- does it -- will -- is it possible that it will defy efforts to control how they're used? Marc, what do you think?
ROTENBERGWell, I don't think it's that difficult. I mean, we routinely licensed some other vehicles in the United States, for example. We have elaborate process. We don't exactly license telephones, but, of course, all of those are subject to commercial agreements. So I don't see the problem of licensing to be a huge challenge.
ROTENBERGI think the key problem will be making clear what the rules are. And this question of how we protect people from, you know, devices flying outside their windows and taking their pictures, I think, is a very real challenge. I don't think we can wish that one away and say, oh, that's not going to happen.
TOSCANOBut I would contend, just as you brought up the automobile, if you take your car and drive 100 miles an hour and kill somebody, you're going to be prosecuted because you violated the law. That doesn't mean we should ban automobiles.
ROTENBERGYeah. But even before you get to drive 100 miles per hour, you have to have a license to get in the vehicle, which is the key point here, you know?
TOSCANOThere's 14- and 15-year olds that I know just in the news yesterday, five of them hijacked a vehicle and drove them up...
ROTENBERGWell, fair enough.
TOSCANO...and drove through the -- the front door of a house.
ROTENBERGAnd that's what we're trying to prevent from happening.
PAGEHere's an email from Bob. He writes, "What laws prevent drones from flying over my property 1,000 feet or 500 feet or 100 feet or six feet?" And an email from Michael that says, "What protection does a landowner have if he or she shoots and damages a drone?" Maybe you could address those two question, Marc.
ROTENBERGWell, I like the second one because I've actually heard that story that one of the best anti-drone measure is to stand out on your land with a shotgun. I'm not recommending that, but I'm sure some people are considering that option. But as to the first question, you know, where to draw the line in terms of the privacy intrusion, it's not easily answered, in part, because the technology today is much more sophisticated than the technology the Supreme Court considered 25 years ago.
ROTENBERGAnd we know from some of the recent court's opinions that the justices will look at this. They'll say, gee, that's interesting. It gets close to the home. It has the ability to record images. That could easily produce some very different outcome.
PAGELet's go to Miami and talk to Jiro (sp?) Am I saying your name correctly?
JIROThank you for taking my call.
PAGEYes. Please, go ahead.
JIROI was just concern -- concerning the war on drugs and also cold war on drugs that these technology, especially the night glow -- night -- the information where they can put this on these drones. I suspect if there's ever going to be war on drugs, it has to be fought in the air because these drones are going to be flying by night where nobody can shoot them with a shotgun, and they're going to be carrying about maybe 15 kilos at flight.
JIROAnd I think if we don't get serious and our legislatures don't get serious and get the right laws in here, we're going to see a disaster 'cause this is already a disaster. Now, what you might comment on that? Thank you for taking my call.
PAGEThanks very much for your call. Well, Todd, just technically, could drones be loaded with drugs and flown over borders?
HUMPHREYSWell, they could be, and they could also be loaded with explosives, so there is a concern about the use of these drones in the hands of even hobbyists. But this has to play into the regulations too. Almost like handgun or gun regulation, you've got the regulation of those who are willing to participate in the regulatory scheme, and then how do you regulate those who are extra -- outside of the regulatory scheme?
PAGEMichael, what do you think about this potential -- I realize there are many constructive uses for drones. We'd all like to see firefighters not put in harms way...
PAGE...or if there are lost hikers, to use drones to find them on the mountainsides. But what about the potential of abuse, for instance, by drug dealers?
TOSCANOWell, when you look at this technology again, it is a revolutionary-type technology that we're still getting our hands around to understand all of the applications, and there are some very big concerns that we have to address. And this is where I do believe that we need to sit down and bring the people that -- other stakeholders together to discuss both the goodness that is there and the issues that have to be addressed. You know, we mentioned about utilizing these things, a farmer flying this thing.
TOSCANOWell, when you stopped and think that precision agriculture and you look at that of how to use these unmanned systems for just spraying alone, 20 years ago, Japan recognized that using unmanned systems was an economic benefit, and they could do it in much more effective and efficient way. Now, 20 years later, 90 percent of all their spraying is done by unmanned systems and less than 10 percent is done by man systems. Its not that they couldn't do it with man systems, but they understand it's more effective and efficient.
TOSCANOIf you want to protect the groundwater, one of the best ways to do that is limit the amount of pesticides that go into the groundwater. Well, by using precision agriculture in flying these unmanned air systems, you can do it in a much more methodical way that the pesticides end up on the plants and not in the ground.
PAGEYou know, it's so interesting you mentioned how Japan is using them. Are other countries further long than we are in the use of these unmanned drones for domestic purposes?
TOSCANOWell, that's somewhat debatable. Obviously, the maturation of this technology, much of that has come out of the United States, but we are losing this technology to the rest of the world. If you look at the -- there was a projection over the next 10 years, you're going to -- we're going to lose about 25 percent of the market to the Soviet Union, to India and to China.
PAGEYou mean lose in terms of building drones and selling them?
TOSCANOIn the application of them, correct.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're continuing to take your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Let's go to Anne Sophie. She's been really patient holding on from Sarasota, Fla. Anne, thanks for holding on.
ANNE SOPHIEHi. Thanks for having me. I wanted to bring up some points. Critics have raised concerns about drone use both abroad and here in terms of transparency. And in terms of establishing, you know, regulations and going beyond privacy, there are real concerns that not only does this somehow border on a police state, but drones could be used to monitor social activism and social action and can curtail constitutional rights to protest. And I was wondering what your guests had to say in regard to that.
PAGEAnd, Anne Sophie, tell us a little bit more about what your concern would be. What do you mean?
SOPHIEWell, my concern is that in terms of like, take, for instance, when we had operation -- Occupy Wall Street going on. There were concerns that, I mean, drones technology already existed at this point. And drones could be used to monitor the actions of social activist groups to curtail their movements and to impede their right to protest and to being able to be out there and actively lobby the government, in cases, even actively lobbying the government against the use of drones in a domestic setting.
PAGEThere's -- wouldn't that be ironic, Marc, if you had drones providing surveillance in a protest against drones?
ROTENBERGWell, I can see that happening actually. It's a very good question. You know, when Washington, D.C., first started to put up the surveillance cameras after 9/11, we were very interested in their use. And one other ways that the surveillance cameras have been used in D.C. is to monitor public protest that take place on the Washington Mall.
ROTENBERGAnd so the next obvious question is, if you had the ability with drones, for example, to monitor, let's say, the 50,000 people who are on the mall last week for the climate protest, this is a new type of surveillance activity by the government that would actually flow quite naturally from what currently takes place. Then you add in other techniques like facial recognition, and you're able to identify people in the crowd of participating public protest.
ROTENBERGSo I think it's an issue we need to watch. Now, I know on the other side, a lot of news gathering organizations have said that drones could also help expand some press activities by gathering information that might be difficult for press groups to gather otherwise.
PAGEWhat kind of thing?
ROTENBERGWell, you know, if you're able to get access as a news organization to a location, for example, that would be difficult for a person to access, you may have some news that the public needs to know and that would've...
PAGEYou mean, like protest in Syria, for instance? It's been very hard to get into Syria. A lot of reporters have, in fact, been killed or kidnapped in Syria, so there might be a news group that's there.
ROTENBERGYou know, that's a possibility. But I think the First Amendment dimensions of drone use also turned out to be very interesting. And as with the discussion Michael and I have had about some of the benefits and also some of the risks, I think it will cut both ways. I think it will enable new type of press reporting. I also think it will in some circumstances make people who want to express their political views a little bit more concerned about government surveillance.
PAGEYou know, the comparison with the surveillance cameras is pretty affluent 'cause the difference is just that these drones are more mobile than the surveillance camera. Todd, I wanted to ask you about something I think that you called spoofing. What is that?
HUMPHREYSSpoofing is an attack against the navigation systems of these drones, and you take advantage of the fact that the GPS sensors aren't hardened against attacks, spoofing attacks. This is where you try to mimic the GPS signals coming down from the satellites. And we carried out an attack, a demonstration attack last summer and showed that we could bring down an $80,000 drone with a spoofing attack.
PAGEAnd so what kind of concerns does that raise in your mind?
ROTENBERGI'd like to see the navigation systems of these drones fixed and hardened against this kind of spoofing before we see them integrated in the national aerospace in large numbers.
PAGEAnd can you do that, or do we already know how to harden the protections?
HUMPHREYSMy students and I are working on it. Lots of good universities across the country are working on it. The GPS Directorate of the Air Force is working on it. A lot of people working on it. It's not an easy problem.
TOSCANOI would offer up, the FAA's next generation of aviation requires or is going to be looking at using GPS as the foothold to all manned and unmanned systems or anything that's into the national airspace. They have already a technology called Selective Availability Anti-spoofing Module. So, obviously, the ability for someone to interact in the communication side is very, very important to both manned and unmanned systems, and there's a lot of technology work that's going on there.
PAGEMichael Toscano, Marc Rotenberg and Todd Humphreys, thanks so much for being with us this hour.
PAGEI'm Susan Page...
PAGE...of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman and Lisa Dunn. The engineer is Erin Stamper. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington, D.C. This is NPR.
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