The drone debate was acted out in dramatic fashion Wednesday as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., filibustered the nomination of John Brennan for director of the CIA after raising concern about the U.S. drone policy. Professor Alan Dershowitz, Harvard School of Law, dropped by “The War Room” to educate us on all things legal when it comes to drones.
There’s no doubt that drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) are a hot topic. So far, the Federal Aviation Administration has issued almost 1,500 UAV licenses to law enforcement agencies, universities and other institutions. And as drone technology continues to advance, we may have to get used to looking up into the sky and seeing birds, planes — and drones.
But maybe that’s not bad news. Here are seven ways drones can be deployed for good.
1. Protecting wildlife
In Asia and Africa, criminal poachers target rhinos, elephants and tigers, and the slaughter shows no sign of slowing. The World Wildlife Fund is seeking to end poaching using drones. Last year, the WWF received a $5 million grant from Google to adapt state-of-the-art drone technologies into tools that will help predict when criminals will target vulnerable wildlife. The organization hopes that UAVs will aid in tracking animal movement and monitoring wildlife habitats and stopping would-be poachers from killing endangered animals.
2. Aiding search and rescue efforts
Scientists have been developing drone technology that can help rescuers track down civilians that go missing in difficult terrains. Computer scientists at Utah’s Brigham Young University are using satellite images, terrain maps and drones to simulate the search for missing people. The scientists say the camera-equipped drones can take video of remote areas, alerting rescuers to unusual sights, like clothing or human activity.
3. Fighting wildfire
Firefighters, like these in Oklahoma, are gearing up to use drones during this year’s wildfire season. Officials say the UAVs will give firefighters an invaluable bird’s-eye view of a fire’s scope and specific safety hazards, which will help responders understand blazes more quickly.
4. Aiding law enforcement efforts
It’s no wonder police officials across the country are itching to get their hands on drone technology. After all, in 2010, officials in North Dakota managed to arrest a cattle thief with drone surveillance, and officials think UAVs could be deployed in many tense situations, like hostage holdups and criminal chases. But these would-be strategies have raised privacy concerns all across the country, with people fearing they will lose individual privacy as more cameras whiz around in the air. Last month, the Seattle Police Department scrapped its drone program after citizens raised privacy complaints. And legislators in Charlottesville, Va., have outlawed the use of drones in their city. But even the American Civil Liberties Union, a big advocate of privacy issues, understands we must find a way to balance technology and privacy.
“We need controls so drones are only used when we believe a crime is happening or … trying to find a missing child,” Chris Calabrese, ACLU legislative counsel, told CNN. “If we put those controls in place, we’ll have a powerful technology that has appropriate controls.”
5. Protecting human rights
While President Obama is being attacked by human rights groups on his drone policy, some activists think drones can actually be used to support human rights. Some experts say high-definition drones could survey conflict zones that governments around the world otherwise can’t see. “We could record the repression in Syria with unprecedented precision and scope,” the co-founders of the Genocide Intervention Network wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece. ”The better the evidence, the clearer the crimes, the higher the likelihood that the world would become as outraged as it should be.”
6. Getting great aerial images
From Hollywood to amateur YouTube clips, drones could become the next breakthrough in how we film pretty pictures. The Motion Picture Association of America has urged the FAA to allow filmmakers to use UAVs to get nice aerial shots that are otherwise more expensive and hard to achieve.
These camera technologies are now also available for the consumer, with some camera drones going for as low as $300.
7. Delivering food … ?
OK, this one isn’t actually in the works, but it might not be too far off. Last year, a group posing as a startup announced it’d be unveiling Tacocopters, UAVs that would whiz around San Francisco delivering tacos right to your door. Just order on your smartphone and wait for the carnitas to be dropped at your feet. The plan turned out to be a hoax, but the brainchild behind the idea, an MIT grad named Star Simpson, says the concept is just so crazy, it might actually work. So maybe in the future, after the FAA has issued commercial drone licenses, we can all expect peaceful UAVs bearing burritos to our homes.
For more, watch “The War Room” tonight as Parker Higgins from the Electronic Frontier Foundation explains more about drones and privacy.