The Drone Dilemma: Everything you Need to Know

It’s hard to get away from drones these days. We’ve all seen the incredible images they create, and advancing technology makes drones cheaper and easier to use every day, even for the layman.
But what are drones? Essentially, aircrafts without a pilot, autonomous or remotely controlled. It’s a broad family of aircrafts, from 40-meters wingspan combat vehicles to micro aerial vehicles, as small as a bee. Drones are mainly used to perform two types of missions. The first are “dull”, lengthy missions, where pilots can get bored or miss something crucial. The second are “dirty” or “dangerous” missions, where human health and ultimately life is put at risk.
Drones have a number of advantages over manned vehicles. Electronics don’t need cabin space or safety equipment, and can sustain higher g forces. These features reduce the weight and improve performance of a UAV, which consumes less fuel and is cheaper than a manned vehicle. On the other hand, the absence of a pilot implies a lower response to environmental hazards, a higher risk of losing signal, interception or hacking.

Like many technologies, drones were conceived in the military field, where they are mainly used for surveillance and, occasionally, striking terrorists. Today there are many other fields of application for the drone technology.
For example, they are employed to shoot aerial photographs and videos for science purposes in areas where photographers and researchers couldn’t dare to adventure (such as exploring a volcano from inside).

In countries with lack of manpower or extensive agricultural fields (such as the USA, Netherlands and Germany), farmers and agricultural firms use UAVs to irrigate the fields, spray pesticides or to investigate the quality of vineyards.
Many firms are considering drones as the future of small-package delivery, which will revolutionize their logistics. For example, Domino’s, an international franchise pizza delivery, in 2013 posted a video showing a “Domi-Copter” delivering two pizzas. While this was likely a PR move, last month the company unveiled the world’s first autonomous pizza delivery vehicle, the Domino’s Robotic Unit, to be adopted in New Zealand anytime soon.
Amazon itself has recently launched Prime Air, a future delivery system from Amazon designed to safely get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less using drones.

drone application

Another application for drone technology is surveillance systems, including livestock monitoring, wildfire mapping, home security, road patrol and antipiracy. The trend for the use of  UAV technology in commercial aerial surveillance is expanding rapidly, with increased development of automated battery changers and refinement of object detection technology.
Alongside other civil applications, drones are also used in search and rescue. Some models have been tested as airborne lifeguards, locating distressed swimmers using thermal cameras and dropping life rafts to swimmers. In the Netherlands, a student has developed a flying defibrillator able to reach heart-attack victims within precious life-saving minutes, raising the chance of survival from 8 to 80%. Also, MQ-1 Predators performed search and rescue and damage assessment after hurricanes struck Louisiana and Texas.

Drone technology definitely has many interesting applications, and has become a high-potential field for companies virtually in any sector to invest in. However, the increased use of UAVs raises ethical and safety concerns.

The most straightforward problems concern air safety. Last month, the pilot of a Lufthansa passenger jumbo jet has reported that a drone aircraft nearly collided with his Airbus A380 on its landing approach to Los Angeles. The plane landed safely a few minutes later. However, in only California, nearly 200 pilots reported close encounters involving drones, despite federal regulations forbid drone aircrafts to fly within 8 km from an airport.
Drone warfare is the use of killing machines that are operated remotely, from thousands of meters away. Theoretically, they enable soldiers to be calm and not act out of fear, and hence reducing the number of unintended casualties. Nevertheless, in the last 6 years alone, at least 2,500 people have been killed by US UAV strikes. Most of them were civilians, and only a tiny percentage of the dead were Al-Quaeda or Taliban leaders. Military drones are still not precise enough, and deaths of civilians as a “collateral damage” may result in increasing violence in the targeted areas and greater popular support for extremist groups.
Although special missiles have been developed to achieve low collateral rates, it’s still worthy to mention that drones represent the radicalization of long-distance killing. The greater the distance, the less the emotional involvement of the executioners – thus the question arises: will they feel less responsible for the deaths?


Unfortunately, issues do not arise with military drones alone. Injuries by private drones are becoming more and more common. In July 2015, a video of a consumer drone modified to fire a semiautomatic handgun went viral on the Internet. Although the genuineness of the video is still to be proved, it shows how easy it is for these innocent-looking aircrafts to become weapons, if they fall in the wrong hands.
Private citizens, who are increasingly concerned that drones equipped with filming cameras could invade their private spaces, have raised frequent issues. In many countries, the current state of law deals poorly with the sort of persistent surveillance made possible by drones. In fact, it’s not always obvious to judge whether someone is in a public field, or in a space where one should have “a reasonable expectation of privacy”. To complicate the matter, the law doesn’t offer any tool to distinguish between episodic surveillance (a snapshot) and persistent surveillance, even though the effects are profoundly different.

As any technological tool, drones are neither intrinsically good nor bad. Their multiple applications will provide more economies and efficiencies, but the risks associated with their uncontrolled usage cannot be ignored. Regulatory agencies should certainly define the rules of this “game of drones”. However, it’s also a responsibility of single citizens to understand the possible threats and do their best to avoid them.

Valeria Savatteri