Conflict & Justice

As drone technology advances, who is responsible?


People look at a Gatewing X100 drone, which could be used for commercial surveying purposes, on September 26 in Merignac near Bordeaux, during the UAV Show Europe, an International Drone fair.



Ryan Calo is a law professor at the University of Washington School of Law and an affiliate scholar at the Stanford Center for Internet and Robotics. He tweets about robotics and privacy @rcalo.

America has caught drone fever. One story after another chronicles the opacity of the Obama administration’s drone program, the threat of drone terrorism, and the privacy issues of using drones at home. One is reminded of Joni Mitchell, reading the news and it all looks bad.

Yet drones are an integral part of a broader story. Like driverless cars, they are a flashpoint in the inevitable ascendancy of commercial robotics. Drones showcase what is most exciting about this burgeoning industry, which echoes the early days of personal computing.

None of which is to say that fears about drones are misplaced.

Open robotics platforms – machines with no dedicated purpose – have the potential to transform aspects of commercial and personal life. But personal computers, while transformative, didn't invoke the same privacy and safety fears.

More from GlobalPost: Domestic police forces, universities using drones despite privacy concerns

Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired Magazine and founder of DYI Drones, is something of a drone cheerleader. He claims expressly that drones are the new personal computer. Here he is writing in the eventual drone issue of Wired (undertaken only when it became conspicuous for the magazine not to have weighed in):

“Like the early personal computers, the main use at this point is experimentation—simple, geeky fun. But as personal drones become more sophisticated and reliable, practical applications are emerging.”

Drones could be the source of aerial information that could launch exciting new services, says Anderson. A new generation of coders can write apps for drones, or apps for smartphones capable of controlling them. And drones could be used to reinvigorate student interest in science, technology, engineering, or math.

So why does the news look so bad?

Last December I argued that drones would not be received well by the public because of our association of the technology with the theater of war and the ease with which we can picture acts of robotic aerial surveillance. Add to this another prediction (from 2010) that robotics generally will challenge product liability.

Imagine, for instance, that a developer writes an app for a smartphone-controlled drone that recognizes and dive-bombs certain faces. A teenager downloads the app and uses it on his sister, who is hurt. Who is responsible? Candidates include the teenager, of course, but also the developer, the drone maker, the smartphone maker, even the operating system. And would you make and sell an open drone platform if you could get sued every time a user put it to questionable use? There is no system in place to protect manufacturers.

More from GlobalPost: Drone marketplace takes off globally

We did not confront these issues to the same degree with computers. Although deployed first by the military, consumers did not tend to associate computers with war. Privacy violations by computers are also very hard to visualize—somewhere, somehow, two bits of information are (maybe) being correlated to your detriment. Users did sue computer manufactures for glitches, but got nowhere: courts reasoned that only information was at stake and limited damages to the cost of hardware or software.

If we are to realize the potential of drones, as Anderson believes we can, we need to focus on getting the privacy, liability and other issues right from the start. We must balance the need for innovation with personal security and protection of companies making strides in a new field.

For starters, the Federal Aviation Administration should follow the request of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and take privacy explicitly into account into streamlining UAS licensing procedures. Courts should build on Jones v. United States in revising the doctrine that you have no reasonable expectation of privacy in public. Moreover, Congress should take a page from Internet legislation and look into immunizing manufacturers of open robots for what users do with them.

The alternative is for the United States to go from a leader in commercial robotics to missing out on its first transformative commercial technology since the steam engine.  

For more of GlobalPost's coverage of the age of drones, check out our Special Report, "The Drone Age: Why We Should Fear the Global Proliferation of UAVs."