Expert Commentary

Commercial drones in the U.S.: Privacy, ethics, economics — and journalism

2015 review of research on the use of drone aircraft by commercial organizations and government agencies, and the dilemmas it poses, including public safety and individual privacy.

In February 2012 the U.S. Congress passed the FAA Modernization & Reform Act, which created a four-year road map for the introduction of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) — better known as “drones” — into U.S. airspace. While thousands of hobbyists now fly tiny helicopters and planes, restrictions are considerable and commercial use is severely limited. Beyond warfare, drones have a wide range of applications, from monitoring weather and inspecting bridges to patrolling borders and conducting search-and-rescue missions. Government agencies and others must currently obtain a “certificate of authorization” from the Federal Aircraft Administration (FAA) before using pilotless aircraft.

All this stands to change in September 2015 as the FAA gradually opens U.S. airspace to private companies and commercial opportunities. While the FAA has had some difficulty developing the necessary rules, industry estimates have suggested that UAS, both military and civilian, will generate $90 billion in business worldwide within 10 years; other analyses predict $91 billion in spending in the U.S. alone over the coming decade. The FAA notes the following with regard to the potential scope of the industry:

There are some 100 U.S. companies, academic institutions and government organizations developing over 300 UAS designs…. UAS’s also vary widely in size, shape, and capabilities. Some unmanned aircraft weigh 1,900 pounds and can remain aloft for 30 hours or more, because there is no need for them to land to change pilots. Some are 6 inches long…. Currently, the majority of UAS systems are operated by the military and have little impact on the NAS. However as the technology matures, increasing numbers of units will be operated by civil and commercial users, and could have greater impacts on the NAS. However the volume of units is relatively small – approximately 15,000 units by 2020 and 30,000 units by 2030.

Of course, the widespread adoption of commercial drones also risks opening up a wide range of dilemmas, including governance, public safety, individual privacy, ethics and even energy use. A 2015 Presidential Memorandum notes these concerns in the context of all government activity:

The Federal Government currently operates UAS in the United States for several purposes, including to manage Federal lands, monitor wildfires, conduct scientific research, monitor our borders, support law enforcement, and effectively train our military. As with information collected by the Federal Government using any technology, where UAS is the platform for collection, information must be collected, used, retained, and disseminated consistent with the Constitution, Federal law, and other applicable regulations and policies.

A 2015 report from the Congressional Research Service report highlights the key legal precedents and what role the federal government might play in setting regulations for the UAS industry. A 2013 paper from the Brookings Institution emphasizes the ability of UAS vehicles’ to “loiter” for long periods of time, and thus draw in significantly more information, potentially posing “a more serious threat to privacy than do manned flights.” As the FAA continues to develop its rules, some have argued that “drone federalism” is the best answer, even as some states and cities have begun banning the use of drones for surveillance.

These capabilities also carry great potential for newsgathering purposes, and journalists are just beginning to discern both the power and the pitfalls with respect to drones. A 2013 report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford notes the substantial decisions that will confront outlets: “News organisations will need to make decisions whether it is feasible and desirable to employ them, how they might be effectively used, the ethics of their use in news reporting, and how their use might affect journalistic credibility amongst the public.”

The Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications is continuing to explore this field and its opportunities. The Lab’s leader, Matt Waite, noted in a February 2015 post on new proposed FAA regulations that “frankly, it’s surprisingly flexible and permissive given what the agency has required of users up to now. Put simply, drones for journalism becomes very possible and very legal under these rules. Only a few things wouldn’t be allowed, and they’re minor in the grand scheme of things.”

The following is additional research on the field of commercial drones and related issues:


“The Predator Comes Home: A Primer on Domestic Drones, their Huge Business Opportunities, and their Deep Political, Moral and Legal Challenges”
Singer, Peter W. Brookings Institution, Center for 21st Century Security & Intelligence, March 2013.

Excerpt: “We are seeing the range of uses [for drones] expand not just in the military, but also, once proved on the military side, moving over to the civilian world. Take aerial surveillance with UAS. It’s gone from a military activity to border security to police to environmental monitoring […] Congress has set a deadline of September 2015 for the Federal Aviation Authority to figure out how to make this happen on a more regularized basis, in essence opening up the national airspace to the civilian public and private sector use […] Indeed, what the opening of the civilian airspace will do to robotics is akin to what the Internet did to desktop computing.”


“Domestic Drones and Privacy: A Primer”
Thompson, Richard M. II, Congressional Research Service, March 2015

Introduction: “As the final arbiter of the Constitution, the courts are naturally looked upon to provide at least the floor of privacy protection from UAS surveillance, but as will be discussed in this report, under current law, this protection may be minimal. In addition to the courts, the executive branch likely has a role to play in regulating privacy and drones. While the FAA has taken on a relatively passive role in such regulation, the President’s new privacy directive for government drone use and multi-stakeholder process for private use could create an initial framework for privacy regulations. With its power over interstate commerce, Congress has the broadest authority to set national standards for UAS privacy regulation…. This report will provide a primer on privacy issues related to various UAS operations, both public and private, including an overview of current UAS uses, the privacy interests implicated by these operations, and various potential approaches to UAS privacy regulation.”


“From Battlefield to Newsroom: Ethical Implications of Drone Technology in Journalism”
Culvera, Kathleen Bartzen. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 2014, Vol. 29, Issue 1. doi: 10.1080/08900523.2013.829679.

Abstract: “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as “drones,” are a military technology now being developed for civilian and commercial use in the United States. With the federal government moving to develop rules for these uses in U.S. airspace by 2015, technologists, researchers, and news organizations are considering application of drone technology for reporting and data gathering. UAVs offer an inexpensive way to put cameras and sensors in the air to capture images and data but also pose serious concerns about safety, privacy, conflict of interest, perspective, and credibility. This research examines the early ethical considerations among drone journalism developers and digital information activists. It places those considerations against the backdrop of utilitarian ethical theory applied to journalism to suggest additional layers of reasoning that must be applied to drones in reporting. Finally, it suggests articulation of ethical guidelines and transparency with the public as means to address inevitable adverse effects of use of this technology.”


“New Perspectives from The Sky: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Journalism”
Mark Tremaynea; Andrew Clark. Digital Journalism, Volume 2, Issue 2, 2014. DOI:10.1080/21670811.2013.805039

Abstract: “Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are a technology now impacting on many fields, including journalism and mass communication. Also referred to as drones, these small remotely-guided aircraft have gained prominence through their increased use in the hunt for Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. With increasingly sophisticated navigation systems and dramatically decreased costs, drones are now being purchased and put to use by commercial organizations and private citizens. Traditional journalists and citizen journalists alike are using drones to obtain aerial footage in a variety of locations around the world. The implications for the field of journalism and mass communication are numerous, with practical, theoretical and ethical dimensions. This paper explores these dimensions using an inductive, qualitative approach. This research paper offers a brief history of UAVs, the results of our canvass of cases that could be categorized as drone journalism, the themes that emerge from this case analysis, and an in-depth look at how this technology impacts on journalism and mass communication. Where this new technology fits within surveillance scholarship is also considered.”

“Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Opportunities, Barriers, and the Future of ‘Drone Journalism'”

Avery E. Holton; Sean Lawson; Cynthia Love. Journalism Practice, December 2014. DOI:10.1080/17512786.2014.980596

Abstract: “Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as “drones,” have gained media attention over the last several years with much of the focus centering on their military uses and their emerging role in newsgathering. News organizations, journalists, and private citizens have employed UAVs to capture and share breaking news, to provide glimpses of natural disasters that would otherwise be too hazardous for journalists to obtain, and to offer unique perspectives that enrich news storytelling. At the same time, media scholars have emphasized the need to better understand the privacy and ethical concerns surrounding UAVs. Legal restrictions to and implications of their use have been relatively unexplored. Given that evolving rules and regulations put in place by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) may ground UAVs for journalistic purposes, it is important to understand what those legal barriers are and what they mean for the future of UAVs as tools for journalism. This paper advances by noting key benefits UAVs offer journalism before explicating the evolving rules and regulations of the FAA and how those are shaping the use of UAVs for journalism by private citizens, journalists, and news organizations.”


“Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems and Journalism: Opportunities and Challenges of Drones in News Gathering”
David Goldberg; Mark Corcoran; Robert G. Picard. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, June 2013.

Excerpt: “The use of drones raises a number of privacy and civil liberty issues for journalists to consider that go beyond the legal issues of privacy invasion. These involve ethical concerns related to the building and maintenance of trust between the public and news organisations and the credibility of journalism. Issues of privacy arise in cases where the public has expectations of privacy, such as persons in their backyards or on rooftops. Companies such as Google, which use land-based and satellite imagery in their mapping operations, have already encountered problems in this area and news organisations will soon experience them because of overflights. News organisations will thus have to consider privacy in cases where images of individuals who are not in public spaces or engaged in news-worthy activities are obtained. Such uses have both ethical and legal implications. National laws regarding privacy vary significantly in different jurisdictions, especially with regard to images obtained outdoors, and these will be applied to images taken from UAVs or new laws may be put into place as a consequence of their use.”


“The Future of Unmanned Aviation in the U.S. Economy: Safety and Privacy Considerations”
Testimony of Christopher R. Calabrese, legislative counsel of American Civil Liberties Union before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Technology. January 15, 2014.

Excerpt: “Unmanned aircraft carrying cameras raise the prospect of a significant new avenue for the surveillance of American life. Many Americans are familiar with these aircraft, commonly called drones, because of their use overseas in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. But drones are coming to America. Under 2012 legislation, the Federal Aviation Administration is required to ‘develop a comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system’ […] our current privacy laws are not strong enough to ensure that this new technology will be used responsibly and consistently with constitutional protections against unchecked government scrutiny embodied in the Fourth Amendment.”


“The Regulation of Civilian Drones’ Impacts on Public Safety”
Clarke, Roger; Moses, Lyria Bennett. Computer Law & Security Review, June 2014, Vol. 30, Issue 3, 263–285.

Abstract: “Because they are airborne artifacts, drones embody threats to people and property, even in normal operation, but especially when malfunctions occur in equipment or in the data communications on which they are heavily dependent. Some natural controls exist over inappropriate drone behavior. General liability laws provide remedies for harm that arises from drones, and act as a deterrent against irresponsible behavior. Specific air safety laws do, or may, apply to drones. Co-regulatory mechanisms provide protections, as may industry and organizational self-regulation. However, a review of current and emergent regulatory arrangements identifies a considerable range of gaps and uncertainties that need to be addressed, particularly in relation to small drones, including micro-drones.”


“Ethical Issues with Use of Drone Aircraft”
Wilson, R.L. Ethics in Science, May 2014. doi: 10.1109/ethics.2014.6893424.

Abstract: “This analysis is aimed at identifying the ethical issues related to a variety of types of Drone aircraft as they are currently deployed in recreational, civilian/commercial and military arenas. A series of examples will be examined in order to attempt to identify the ethical problems that we confront [with the] recreational, civilian/commercial and military uses of drones…. I will first survey how drone aircraft create ethical problems and how humans play an important role in how ethical issues emerge for drones. After the identification of the ethical issues with the types of drones we can next move on to how drone aircraft may function in the future and what ethical issues may arise for the future development and deployment of autonomous drones.”


“The Need for a Life Cycle Assessment of Drone-Based Commercial Package Delivery”

Stolaroff, J.K. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, March 2014.

Excerpt: “Previous studies have shown that transport of goods by conventional aircraft is about 4 times more carbon-intensive than transport by truck, which is in turn about 10 times more carbon-intensive than transport by rail. A delivery system based on UAVs carrying single packages promises a new class of delivery speed — Amazon has claimed 30 minutes from time of purchase. If it follows the trend set by other modes, this jump in speed could come at the cost of another order-of-magnitude increase in energy intensity and carbon emissions. On the other hand, perhaps the logistical benefits of integrating UAV delivery for the last leg of a package’s journey with other modes would lead to a net energy savings…. Although UAVs for commercial package delivery have so far been battery-powered in public depictions, we should consider the possibility that operators would turn to fossil-fueled models because of the inherent advantages in energy density and hence range, [which] could be disastrous for local air quality.”


Keywords: drones, privacy, technology, commercial aircraft, research roundup