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Look! Up In The US Sky!


It’s a bird ... It’s a plane ... It’s Superman!
“No, It’s an Amazon delivery drone.”
“I think it’s a Google drone.”
“Maybe it’s from the NSA.”
“It looks more like the police one that came over yesterday.”
“You’re all wrong! It’s from the photographer down the block.”

If the above seems familiar, it is – it’s the beginning of last week’s column on Drones! That column dealt mainly with drones being used as instruments in war – first in Afghanistan & Iraq and now in Iraq & Syria against the “Islamic State” (“ISIS” or “ISIL”). This column, on the other hand, deals with the use of drones within the United States.
Drones are / will be generally used for four purposes:
1. Commercial Uses
2. Surveillance by Law Enforcement Agencies
3. Personal Use
4 Stalking and Invasion of Privacy
The commercial uses have come into focus recently when, late last year, Amazon revealed the testing of its delivery drone service, “Amazon Prime Air” ( and then again, this year, when Google announced that it has been testing its own drone delivery service, “Google Wing” (, in Australia. These models differ in technology and in intent. The Amazon announcement wrote about allowing Amazon to make same-day delivery of items purchased by its clients while Google’s announcement focused on delivery of product to outlying places – just what Google plans to deliver remains up-in-the-air; Google has very few tangible products of its own – there are tablets, a phone, and television controllers, manufactured by others and sold and marketed under its name – does it plan to deliver other products, competing with Federal Express, UPS, and others?
Both Amazon and Google, as well as any other businesses attempting to use drones for commercial operations, face a very real obstacles in implementing their drone goals – the Federal Aviation Administration  (FAA) allows the use of drones for commercial use only under very strict guidelines contained in Section 333 of its regulations:
Specifically, Section 333 authorizes the FAA to determine:

  1. If certain unmanned aircraft systems, if any, as a result of their size, weight, speed, operational capability, proximity to airports and populated areas, and operation within visual line of sight do not create a hazard to users of the national airspace system or the public or pose a threat to national security; and
  2. Whether a certificate of waiver, certificate of authorization, or airworthiness certification under section 44704 of title 49, United States Code, is required for the operation of unmanned aircraft systems identified under paragraph (1).

The FAA regulations have been met with heavy criticism for getting in the way of technological innovations. In a column in Forbes Magazine, “FAA Dithering Forces Google And Other Drone Innovators To Take Their Jobs And Technology Abroad” (, Gregory S. McNeil writes “Under the FAA’s current rules, commercial operators are prohibited from flying unmanned aerial vehicles — drones — unless they first get permission from the FAA.  That means a company like Amazon or Google, armed with billions of dollars to invest in technological innovation, simply cannot experiment without one of their tech geniuses first submitting their experimental aircraft to an FAA bureaucrat for approval. “The FAA will argue that Google and Amazon can take their secret, proprietary technology to a government run test site, but that argument is absurd on its face, it’s like telling Google that they can only test their algorithms on government computers at public libraries.
The FAA does write on its aforementioned website “The FAA is currently considering exemptions under Section 333 from several different companies.” It is also interesting to note that the FAA has not attempted to punish photographers who, for commercial purposes, have used drones to photograph weddings which had barred their physical attendance.
An equally contentious issue is the use of drones for law enforcement in surveillance activities. The American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) had been particularly outspoken on this issue, writing on its website ( “U.S. law enforcement is greatly expanding its use of domestic drones for surveillance. Routine aerial surveillance would profoundly change the character of public life in America. Rules must be put in place to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a “surveillance society” in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the government. Drone manufacturers are also considering offering police the option of arming these remote-controlled aircraft with (nonlethal for now) weapons like rubber bullets, Tasers, and tear gas. … Congress has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to change airspace rules to make it much easier for police nationwide to use domestic drones, but the law does not include badly needed privacy protections.” A full copy of the ACLU Report, “Protecting Privacy From Aerial Surveillance is available on-line at protectingprivacyfromaerialsurveillance.pdf
The ACLU recommends that the following “safeguards” be added to any FAA regulations concerning the deployment of domestic drones:
USAGE LIMITS: Drones should be deployed by law enforcement only with a warrant, in an emergency, or when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific criminal act.

DATA RETENTION: Images should be retained only when there is reasonable suspicion that they contain evidence of a crime or are relevant to an ongoing investigation or trial.

POLICY: Usage policy on domestic drones should be decided by the public’s representatives, not by police departments, and the policies should be clear, written, and open to the public.

ABUSE PREVENTION & ACCOUNTABILITY: Use of domestic drones should be subject to open audits and proper oversight to prevent misuse.

WEAPONS: Domestic drones should not be equipped with lethal or non-lethal weapons.

With the possible exception of the “Data Retention” and “Abuse Prevention and Accountability” sections, these restrictions are bound to be objected to by members of the law enforcement community. One of the projected uses of drones is to provide unnoticed surveillance of “high-crime areas” and the warrant requirement would eliminate that use.
Additionally, law enforcement would certainly prefer under rather loose legal guidelines to set it is own policy and procedures on the use of its drones, rather than have them a subject of public review and debate.
Finally, law enforcement most certainly would want to have the availability of small weapons carrying drones available for hostage and SWAT-type operations.
The FAA regulations and ACLU suggested guidelines should be a matter of public debate but will only be so if an informed public deems to care about them and make its voice heard!
Next Week – Domestic Drones for Personal Uses (including Stalking and Invasion of Privacy)
Direct comments on this issue:
John F. McMullen is a writer, poet, college professor and radio host. Links to other writings, Podcasts, & Radio Broadcasts at, his books are available on Amazon, and he blogs at