Droning on

Apr 12, 2013
Droning on

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), more often referred to as drones, will most likely be coming to a field near you… in the very near future. Not to date myself or anything, but I think I may be having an 80s flashback. “I always feel like somebody’s watching me…” While some of the advantages to UAVs are obvious—faster, cheaper land surveys; aerial pesticide or fertilizer applications; data collection—the ethical questions have yet to be resolved. There’s just a certain amount of creepiness to the whole idea, not to mention the privacy, safety and legal issues.

According to a recent study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the economic value alone should push everyone into “droning” on. According to AUVSI, in the first three years of UAV integration, more than 70,000 jobs will be created in the U.S. with an economic impact of more than $13.6 billion. And a federal law mandates that the Federal Aviation Administration open up the National Airspace System by 2015. So, it looks like, creepy or not, it’s destiny.

“It’s a simple economic equation… You can take a simple UAV and repurpose imagery for a farmer’s field for cents on the dollar compared to using traditional aircraft. That’s the holy grail of aerodynamics,” said Rory Paul, CEO of Volt Aerial Robotics But the simple economics don’t take into consideration activists groups, with questionable motives, and deep pocket books.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) recently announced its UAV plan, hoping to acquire a drone to monitor unlawful hunters. Does anyone else see the irony in the use of “ethical” and “drone” in that sentence?

The animal-rights’ group announced last week that they had reached out to Australia-based drone manufacturer for their future ethical plans.

“…PETA is planning to acquire a drone of its own to spy on hunters and catch them in the act as they terrorize animals and break game laws,” says Alisa Mullins, senior editor of PETA Foundation. “The drones can also be used to fly over factory farms and other areas that are hotbeds of abuse,” she added in her April 8 blog.

Currently, UAV use is prohibited under FAA regulations. Although the majority of drones fly under 400 feet, the FAA worries about national airspace safety. So far, 30 states have tried pushing forward legislation limiting drones. Last week, the Florida Senate unanimously passed a bill limiting Florida law enforcement’s use of drones. “I believe that privacy should be protected,” Gov. Rick Scott said.

The Missouri House narrowly passed a bill banning government surveillance drones. Republican Casey Guernsey, chair of the House Ag committee, drafted the legislation. According to Guernsey, government videos in Iowa have brought charges against as many as 50 farmers. Guernsey believes the charges could be unfounded, considering those interpreting the data “don’t understand anything about growing crops” or “keeping cattle.”

The bill, which now goes to the Missouri Senate, also bans the news media from using drones for private property and individual surveillance. This is a bit of an ironic twist, considering the University of Missouri has a journalism drone flying class. Bill Allen, a science and journalism professor at the college, told ABC News, “So they learn to fly them, and also do what reporters do: brainstorm ideas, go out and do reporting, do drone-based photography and video.”

Drones were also in the hot seat when Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) filibustered for 13 hours against the nomination of John Brennan for CIA director, in protest of the administration’s stance on the technology.

Of the 30 states that have introduced legislation, 23 include warrants and probable cause for drone use. But what about the activists? Can they legally cruise their drone over CAFOs, or dairy barns or public lands? As history has shown, legal or not, ethical or not, it may not matter. With the readily available information highway, it doesn’t take much to ruin a company with a slapped together video and some lies.

As it stands, the activists are likely to “drone” on, like it or not. Producers, hunters and maybe even every day pet owners may be singing right along with me… “I always feel like somebody’s watching me… and I have no privacy.” — TRACI EATHERTON