What Can Alleviate Drone Privacy Concerns?


As more and more unmanned aircraft populate U.S. national airspace, privacy and safety concerns continue to emerge. Thus, state legislators attempt to combat these concerns – sometimes at the expense of the commercial drone industry’s growth. During a panel at this week’s Drone World Expo in San Jose, Calif., several industry stakeholders took the floor to dive into this issue and recommend courses of action.

At the session – entitled “Emerging state privacy legislation: solution or quagmire?” – Brendan Schulman, vice president of policy and legal affairs for DJI, moderated a discussion with John Abbey, a retired chief of police from here in California’s Silicon Valley; California Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-District 24; Ben Griffith, government affairs consultant at Capitol Partners LLC; and Greg McNeal, a Pepperdine University professor and co-founder of AirMap.

With a “media fascination” of new technology comes a “lack of understanding” of the laws that go with it, explained McNeal.

Schulman brought up the notion of computer cookies – in that, during the early days of the Internet, some legislators, citing an invasion of privacy, fought against cookies before the industry responded and thus “kept the government at bay,” he said. In a way, Schulman added, this could serve as a model for the emerging drone industry.

The panel members agreed that privacy concerns come from all walks of life – and political parties: “Privacy is not necessarily a partisan issue; it’s more of a personal issue,” said Gordon.

Even if legislators propose a law for a drone privacy issue already accounted for in an existing law, he explained, “Everyone is going to try to reinvent the law.” The problem, sometimes, is that legislators’ motives may be to just “get the headline” or “have the bill named after them” – resulting in “legislation piled on top of other legislation,” he said.

McNeal brought up California’s S.B.124 – which ended up being vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September – as an example of legislation that may have reasonable intentions in the beginning but, after many amendments, contains provisions that have strongly deviated from the original.

The measure was first introduced by State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, in January, when she intended to clarify that “rules pertaining to trespassing and the physical invasion of privacy also apply to entry by … drones,” the senator first said in a release.

By the time it reached the governor’s desk nearly nine months later, the bill would have created a no-fly zone for drones 350 feet or fewer above private property in the state – a move that would have “needlessly and dramatically obstruct[ed] the growth of [the] industry,” said the Small UAV Coalition, one of the many industry groups and stakeholders who spoke out against the law before it was shut down by Brown.

Gordon noted that he, indeed, voted “yes” to the law at first but ended up in opposition to the measure once the elements had changed so dramatically due to all the amendments.

The panelists all noted the importance of becoming involved at the local level before potentially onerous laws are issued in the first place. McNeal explained that “once the legislative process gets started, you have absolutely no control over it.”

However, Griffith admitted that there will always be people who simply want “drones to disappear” and who will create legislation in an attempt to accomplish that. Once the benefits of the technology are realized at a local level, though, the legislation will start to “loosen up,” he explained.

Schulman asked the panelists whether the absence of Federal Aviation Administration rules for operations is a catalyst for bringing forth drone concerns and subsequent legislation at the state level. McNeal said that although, of course, the rules do need to arrive soon, they’re not going to solve everything.

“We start to win these fights,” McNeal explained, when we get the rules, including a rule for micro drones (proposed by Schulman last December), and in the long term – being three to four years – more and more people from a broad spectrum of industries realize the technology’s myriad benefits and so, too, do the state legislators.

Abbey pointed out earlier, however, that “if you don’t know what the laws are, you can’t follow them.”

Abbey brought up the fact that some of the problems responsible for creating these privacy concerns do not stem from commercial or government drone operators; rather, they stem from operators who are abusing the technology.

There is something that can stop these operators, however, he said: technology advancements.

“The drone industry is being bailed out by these new technologies,” Abbey explained. He noted the just-created partnerships AirMap established with 3D Robotics and DJI, two of the biggest unmanned aircraft companies in the world, in which AirMap’s airspace safety data – letting users know exactly where and where not to fly – will be integrated with the companies’ respective technology and will “stop people from breaking the law,” he said.

“Technology forces you to follow the rules,” he said, adding that he believes the right drone technology will fix 99% of the problems addressed in legislation. “What we’re talking about now is going to be a completely different picture next year,” he predicted, referencing a likely even greater proliferation of advancements.

McNeal ended with a plea to the audience to get involved: If you care about the growth of the drone industry, do something about it.

“We need you to know your local people and let them know you exist,” he said.

Griffith emphasized earlier that if legislators do not know your side of the story, they may choose to focus on the part of the population who believes that unmanned aircraft are no more than spying machines.

Referencing his own and other industry stakeholders’ fight against S.B.124, for example, McNeal added, “We absolutely cannot do it on our own. We are overwhelmed.”

“Protect yourselves – because we cannot protect everyone,” he said.

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