The military drones that maraud the skies from Afghanistan to Somalia are increasingly catching the public’s attention.
The US’ supposedly secret war rarely seems to leave the news pages. But are civilian drones getting enough attention?
Chris Cole of Drone Wars UK thinks not. Last night he went on BBC2′s flagship news programme, Newsnight, to say as much.
Commercially operated civilian drones will be flying over the UK by the end of the decade, he explained. ‘I don’t think the public is aware about how quickly this is going to be happening.’
Civilian drones are an economic opportunity for Britain but the potential threats to civil liberty and privacy that come with the pilotless aircraft must not be overlooked.
Cole emphasised the lack of public debate of these issues, but these were issues which Newsnight failed to tackle. The programme managed to set out the basic concerns but didn’t go into any real depth, instead lingering on the commercial potential of a virgin market.
It is a market that risks being under-regulated.
‘With their huge increase in private companies and institutions able to use drones over our heads, who is going to stop people watching us on our own property and even our own homes?’ asked Cole.
Drone use is monitored by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the CAA has no qualms with anyone using a drone, so long as they can use it safely. They have neither the authority nor resources to police what drones will be used for.
There are certainly good uses for drones. From surveying agricultural land to help farmers maximise their yields to checking oil pipelines for leaks. And there is commercial potential, not least in the UK with its capacity for high tech manufacturing and pressing need for any boost to the economy.
But Drones are fundamentally dual use – the same piece of kit can be used for legitimate and malign ends. The dual uses of drones, like the surveillance technology industry, presents significant challenges that must be addressed.
For Newsnight, though, the debate stalled on the economic boon drones could present, while legitimate fears for privacy and liberty remained left to one side.
Noel Sharkey, the robotics professor from Sheffield, did his best to move a studio debate on to these important areas. ‘We need to sort out the issues,’ he said. While there are commercial benefits, he continued, ‘we mustn’t let the PR of that distract us from the issues of civil liberties.’
Unfortunately this is exactly what happened on Newsnight, to the extent that Sharkey was compelled to make the most elementary point. A debate will enable us balance the benefits of civilian drones, and protecting our freedoms. ‘It’s finding the place to draw that line,’ he said.
That line will not be found unless we are able to move beyond the basics.
In one move, Newsnight demonstrated how the programme failed to do just that. As Sharkey started to get to grips with the issue of privacy he was drowned out by a drone, flying across the studio.
You can watch the Newsnight episode on BBC iPlayer.
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Audio of the ‘debate’:
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