The Draganflyer X6 helicopter is shown in Seattle April 27, 2012. Now, the mayor of Seattle is ending the police department’s drone program after local residents protested.
Long before President Obama ordered the Justice Department to release a classified memo outlining the legality behind killing U.S. citizens overseas, organizations dug in on either side of the national debate concerning the use of unmanned aerial vehicles.
But what are drones and why are they the topic of such heated debate?
The term “drone” — an unmanned aircraft with various payloads that is controlled remotely by a crew on the ground — slowly resurfaced in the national lexicon over the past few years as strikes abroad began to hit home. Last year, the murder of three U.S. citizens in Yemen sparked the national debate.
Incidents such as the one in Yemen — where the militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, an alleged al-Qaeda propagandist and Awlaki’s son were killed by a drone strike — raise ethical questions over when drones should be used. All three were born in the United States.
Drones have largely been used to assist ground forces in the Middle East and are a safer alternative to sending ground forces in. At home, they’re used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“One of the reasons I think they have a bad connotation is through the way that they’ve been portrayed in media and have been used in combat,” says Jonathan Turman, a senior studying mechanical engineering at the University of Virginia. “So when everyone thinks ‘drones’ they think ‘Predator’ and ‘Hellfire Missiles.’”
But drones have been around for decades — facilitating military training and exercises or at home where hobbyists built and explored their local airspace with RC airplanes.
“There are a lot of other applications,” says Steven Easter, also a senior studying mechanical engineering at the University of Virginia. “Only a very small portion are used for combat.”
Turman and Easter are most recognized for the 3D-printed unmanned aircraft they produced late last year. When asked how their peers perceived them building what the nation has deemed a “drone,” the two, who are also brothers, they said their project has been generally positively received.
“Most of the people I’ve spoken to about the project seem to be a little more enamored by the novelty and coolness,” says Turman.
“A lot of people ask us if our plane enables terrorists,” says Easter, “and that’s not the case.”
According to an Associated Press National Constitution Center poll, more than a third of Americans fear their privacy is at stake if more public entities such as police forces add unmanned aerial vehicles to their ranks.
Parker Higgins, a spokesperson for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which protects and promotes civil liberties where they interact with technology, says that he believes if “this were entirely overseas then the emotional charge would be a little less.”
The rate of drones and unmanned aircraft at home and in civil airspace is rising. When the EFF forced the Federal Aviation Administration to release a list of Certificates of Authorization, it was revealed that along with government entities, 25 universities were approved to fly unmanned vehicles.
Kansas State University created a degree in unmanned aviation last year that is designed for “training civil operators to deploy and make critical decisions,” when using unmanned aerial vehicles, says Kurt Barnhart, the executive director of the Applied Aviation Research Center at Kansas State.
The practical applications of unmanned aircraft range from crop dusting, research vessels, fire and EMS first responders — even wildlife preservation.
“I think generally speaking there’s a missed perception,” says Gretchen West, the executive vice president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “There’s a lot of debate about how they’re going to be used. From a civil perspective, they’ll be quite small.”
West explained that what they’d be used for is simple surveillance, weighing between 4 and 35 pounds with a flight time of little more than half an hour — relatively small compared to the models deployed by our military.
“The fact that it’s a general technology raises a lot of very different issues,” says Higgins, the spokesperson for EFF. Either way, it’s “not a a fun time to be a drone sympathizer.”
In tonight’s State of the Union beginning at 9 p.m. ET, do you think Obama will address his use of drones? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
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