ATTACK OF THE DRONES
The week of February 1, 2015

Of guns and drones

By Andrew Couts

On a mild January day last year, I thought for a brief moment that I’d killed an entire busload of children.

The problem, you see, was my drone. I didn’t know where it had flown off to. And right when the speck of whirring motors blinked out of sight, that damn yellow bus drove by. I panicked. The twisted vision of my quadcopter careening from 100 feet in the air straight into the windshield whizzed through my buzzing brain: The bus driver swerving from the scare, crashing straight into a nearby creek, the children, tossed over those moss-green seats and through windows.

This high-flying toy had gone from a thrilling hobby to something that had just ruined lives—those poor kids, their families. Me.

I thought for a brief moment that I’d killed an entire busload of children.

Of course, none of that happened. (The drone just landed itself in a corn field across the street, as it’s designed to do.) But it could have. And that’s why we’re in the mess we see right now.

The Federal Aviation Administration is currently trying to figure out how to regulate drones in the United States. And so far, as author Adam Rothstein explains in this issue, it’s not going well. While Congress mandated in 2012 that the FAA come up with safety and technical regulations for what it calls “unmanned aerial systems,” or UAS, by September of this year, it’s unlikely the agency will meet that deadline.

That’s not to say there aren’t rules. Using drones to make money without permission is strictly forbidden, for example, and hobbyist pilots must keep their vehicles below 400 feet, away from airports and no-fly zones, and within the line of sight. As we recently found out when a drunk government intelligence official crashed a drone on the White House lawn, however, accidents can and do still happen.

Drones, like guns, occupy a strange space in American culture, in a crevasse that separates those who use them and value what they can do and those who don’t.

As someone who both flies drones and grew up in the woods of Appalachian Ohio, I’m reminded of another piece of controversial technology, one that wallows in the nether regions of regulatory scrutiny and inspires passions among anyone whose life comes into contact with them, for better or worse. I’m talking, of course, about guns.

Drones, like guns, occupy a strange space in American culture—a crevasse that separates those who use them and value what they can do and those who don’t.

The most direct similarity between guns and drones—the one that hides beneath the surface of most debates about either technology—is that they are really, really fun to use. Anyone who’s ever flown a drone will tell you it’s easy to get addicted to the feeling that these gadgets give you a kind of superpower. They’re like an extension of your body that can soar into the sky, fly around buildings and over trees, and capture incredible footage, all for just a few hundred (or thousand) bucks. Guns give you a similar superpower; they make you invincible—at least, it feels that way when you pull the trigger.

Anyone who’s ever flown a drone will tell you it’s easy to get addicted to the feeling that these gadgets give you a kind of superpower.

Of course, the fact that shooting guns is incredibly fun never comes up in Second Amendment battles. Arguing that you should be able to own any gun you like, or pilot a drone anywhere you want, because it’s fun to do so simply fails as an argument, even if that’s the honest-to-God truth. So we turn to more pragmatic debates. Guns are useful for home defense and personal protection, hunting, and sport. Drones can help find missing people, gather news, surveil farmland, and aid law enforcement. Et cetera. Et cetera.

Then there’s the economic argument, which is rarely mentioned in the national gun debate but is a centerpiece of the pro-drone lobby and likely has more to do with these debates than anything. The National Shooting Sports Foundation estimated in 2013 that the firearms industry is responsible for more than 245,000 American jobs and generates a total of nearly $37.7 billion. It is arguably these numbers—not the ideals of the Constitution—that make the NRA such a pushy beast. The drone industry sees even bigger dollar signs. The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) projects that drones and their related industries will create 70,000 new jobs in the first three years of integration and an economic impact of $13.6 billion. Within 10 years, the figures jump to 100,000 jobs and the generation of $82 billion in American economic activity.

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The flip side to all these positive spins is fear, death, and destruction. Guns resulted in the deaths of some 32,000 people in 2010 (a number just slightly lower than the number of people killed in car crashes). Add to this danger the fear of mass shootings, which are on the rise in the United States, and any reasonable person can see why the gun debate is far from over. Hobbyist drones, on the other hand, don’t seem to have killed anyone, unless you count the tragic death of a 19-year-old New York City native who was decapitated by his toy helicopter (which is similar to a drone but not as “smart”).

Drones and their related industries will create 70,000 new jobs in the first three years of integration and an economic impact of $13.6 billion.

And yet, drones still scare the crap out of us. Just that word—drone—has a menacing ring to it. This is, in large part, likely due to the use of military drones, which are believed to have killed as many as 3,600 people over the past decade, according to the New American Institute—and that’s just in Pakistan, a country where we have declared no war. On top of that is the use of drones by U.S. law enforcement for surveillance purposes, and the overall fear of IRL privacy violations. The idea that anyone, from the police to your creepy neighbor, could potentially be watching you with the help of a drone is enough to turn anyone’s stomach.

Unlike guns, however, drone use enjoys no inalienable rights in the United States. There is no amendment to the Constitution mandating, “The right to own and operate sweet GoPro-packing flying contraptions shall not be infringed.” So rather than listen to the increasingly loud drone lobby, just as Congress often argues on behalf of the NRA and its rank-and-file gun owners, the FAA seem poised to take the safety-first route with drone regulation, even if it’s not the most expedient or even common-sense one. Instead of allowing small hobbyist drones to continue to operate within the current rules, the agency may require licenses and training for flying what amounts to sophisticated RC helicopters, as Matthew Bieschke points out in this issue. And don’t even think about Amazon delivering your packages anytime soon.

At the end of the day, I’ve flown drones and fired guns, and I had a blast doing both. And in each case, the pro-safety and pro-freedom crowds have a point. Technology can make our lives better, in both practical and pleasurable ways. But then someone comes along and kills a bunch of kids, and you have to ask yourself: Is this really worth it?

Illustration by Jason Reed