Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, have been an extremely controversial topic over the past couple of years. The Obama administration has relied heavily on drones in its counterterrorism operations.
Drones can operate in remote and dangerous regions, in which placing soldiers on the ground would not be ideal. Primarily used for purposes of surveillance, drones have also been used to target and kill individuals suspected of involvement in the planning and execution of terrorist attacks.
Drones have generated controversy, however, because they are often operated in countries that the United States is not currently at war with, such as Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen. Arguably, this is a violation of the sovereignty of these nations, and illegal by international law.
Moreover, many drone strikes have resulted in the deaths of civilians. While the US government labels this as "collateral damage," it is apparent that those on the receiving end of drone strikes do not feel the same way. The United States' use of drones and drone strikes is widely unpopular in Pakistan, as well as globally.
This is perhaps because the US government has habitually failed to establish transparency surrounding the use of drones and drone strikes. In essence, very little is known about when and why drones are utilized. Many questions have still been left unanswered. As a consequence, it's unclear whether the drone program is achieving its goals.
Furthermore, it is evident that the logic employed to select targets is quite dubious, and often leads to the unwarranted deaths of civilians. Some drone attacks are a product of a policy known as "signature strikes."
Signature strikes target groups of men believed to be militants associated with terrorist groups, but whose identities aren't always known.
If they look like they might cause trouble, and they are of military age, they are targeted. Obviously, this is a very problematic policy, and it has led to the deaths of numerous civilians.
Likewise, there are some who worry that drone strikes simply increase enmity towards the United States. There are trepidations that by killing today's "terrorist," the US government is simply creating tomorrow's.
In many ways, America's drone strikes have become a recruiting poster for extremism. In essence, there are fears that drones will simply perpetuate the War on Terror, rather than bring it to an end. Accordingly, there is a continuous debate over the morality, effectiveness and legality of drones.
Last May, President Obama pledged greater transparency surrounding drones, but very little has changed.
Perhaps an even larger problem is the fact that a majority of Americans support the use of drones and drone strikes, despite knowing very little about them.
This is undoubtedly a product of the fact that Americans perceive terrorism as the greatest threat in the world, even though statistically they are highly unlikely to die in a terrorist attack.
With that said, it still seems that when most people hear the word "drone," it might only trigger thoughts surrounding their use in military applications.
However, drones are actually pretty cool... when they aren't being used to kill people.
Thus, while the conversation surrounding the use of drones and drone strikes is important, and requires continued attention, it's also important to realize that this technology isn't all bad.
Drones come in a variety of shapes in sizes. Some drones are the size of insects, and others are as large as jet airliners.
Accordingly, there are concerns that drones could be used to violate individual privacy and security. These concerns are well founded, before drones can be used across the United States, substantial regulations need to be put in place regarding privacy and security.
Even recently, reports have surfaced that paparazzi are using drones to spy on celebrity homes. Accordingly, this technology has the capacity to be misused.
Moreover, in March, a drone also almost collided with a commercial airliner. Thus, the use of drones in domestic airspace will have to be regulated to accommodate other air-traffic.
A report also recently surfaced claiming that prisoners in a maximum-security prison in South Carolina attempted to use a drone to smuggle in marijuana.
This is perhaps why the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not fully approved the use of drones in commercial applications. However, they have approved the limited use of drones in commercial settings, which is extremely prudent as the public adjusts to this new technology.
Congress has asked the FAA to establish regulations for the commercial use of drones by September 30, 2015. Given the complex nature of this technology, and the implications of its use, it might be difficult for the FAA to accomplish this.
In places like Charlotte, North Carolina, small businesses are not waiting for FAA approval to use drones commercially. As the Charlotte Observer notes, these businesses have begun to use drones "to take pictures of houses, golf courses and even weddings."
Major companies, like Amazon, also hope to take advantage of the technology. They hope to provide 30-minute air deliveries through a service known as Amazon Prime Air. Their biggest obstacle, at present, is the fact that this has not been approved by the FAA.
Regardless, it's only a matter of time before drones are delivering your packages, and perhaps even your pizzas.
Beyond commercial use, drones are also used for some decidedly benevolent purposes in many parts of the world.
In Kenya, drones will be used in the fight against poaching, which has become a tremendous problem in Africa.
The Ol Pejeta Conservancy, which protects white and black rhinos in a 90,000-acre Kenyan reserve, has joined forces with a San Franciscan company called Airware.
As the BBC notes:
As well as spotting, tracking and deterring poachers, drones could also play a wider conservation role. ...Drones equipped with multiple sensors and cameras will be used strategically for surveillance, data collection, and flora and fauna censuses.
In addition to protecting wildlife, drones have the tremendous capacity to be used any number of ways in recreational pursuits. They have been seen at concerts, weddings and parties. They have even been used to deliver beer.
Unfortunately, however, the FAA was quite a buzz-kill, and told a company delivering beer to ice fishers in Minnesota that it had to stop until regulations are put in place. In fact, anyone can buy a drone these days, and some cost as low as $107.
Thus, while the pros and cons of drones must continue to be explored, it's apparent that this technology has endless possibilities.
Moreover, perhaps as the American public becomes more familiar with drones through personal and commercial applications, it will be in a better position to critique and understand the use of drones in military pursuits.
In turn, under public pressure, the government might finally establish genuine transparency surrounding drones.
At present, the relatively unfettered use of drones and drone strikes by the US government and military is setting a very dangerous precedent. Other countries are also developing this technology, and non-state actors could easily get their hands on it as well.
Soon, drones will be ubiquitous. It would behoove the public and the government to engage in meaningful dialogue surrounding the technology, in order to ensure that it is used properly in the future both domestically and internationally.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock