A new frontier: regulating drones/UAVs

This week, the website, the Conversation has an article on the need for regulating UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones). Drones came to most people’s attention first through their use in military warfare over the past decade although there use goes back many decades (History of drones from Nesta and from Human Rights Watch.  Military UAVs have been seen as attractive because they are much cheaper and do not risk the lives of pilots, but there are many important legal, ethical and geopolitical issues associated with military drones.  There has also increasingly been international competition in the use of UAVs, but that is not the debate we are focused on here. It is relevant insofar as military applications have brought the price of drones dramatically and there is speculation that costs can be driven down much further.

There are many civilian purposes that are relatively uncontentious, such as search-and-rescue missions, inspecting vast pipeline networks or delivering medical supplies or humanitarian aid in remote locations (as championed by UNICEF), demining, border patrols or any number of environmental assessment or scientific research activities. WWF in Nepal and Kruger National Park in South Africa use UAVs for anti-poacher patrols.

Where it starts to get more difficult is in built up areas and/or where the use is more contentious. The police and security services, NGOs, media organisations and many firms may use UAVs to ‘spy’ on neighbours, transgressors, trespassers, but drones equally have been used to film the winter Olympics and in major motion pictures.

Unsurprisingly, many firms have already begun to explore the opportunity provided by UAVs. One notable example is Amazon, which is interested in the use of drones for delivery.  Amazon’s European R&D centre for drones is in Cambridge

It is worth considering how, when and why we would expect to see UAVs regulated.  One can find various lists or surveys of the current status of regulation in different countries.  The UK regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), can’t be said to have been asleep at the switch, it introduced regulations in 2010, long before many of us had thought of drones in a civilian context.

Please let me know what you think about UAV regulation, particularly in the context of policy models:

  1. Which are the key interests that would be involved in any regulatory regime for drones?
  2. How might you be able to explain the evolution of UAV regulation?
  3. Has regulation been able to anticipate the evolution of the technology (in terms of uses and availability, access, risks, cost,privacy implications, ethics, etc)?
  4. What are the dangers of over-regulation? Under-regulation?
  5. What about timing? Is the greater danger regulating ‘too early’ or too late’?
  6. Which policy model(s) seem most resonant with regard to the regulation of drones?

Please feel free to engage on the Conversation as well.