License to drone

Posted on Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Advances in technology have allowed for the creation of small, affordable drones that can be readily purchased by businesses and the general public. Despite their many benefits, drones also present a number of legal challenges, especially regarding privacy issues. In light of incidents like the drone crash landing on the White House lawn and reports of drones looking into apartment windows and spying on nuclear facilities, calls for more comprehensive government regulation are mounting. Regulating an emerging and potentially transformative technology is complicated because it is difficult to predict its future uses and features. PhD candidate Kristen Thomasen is developing a legal framework for the regulation of domestic drones. To achieve this, her current research explores the legal history of another transformative technology: the automobile.

Can we draw lessons for the regulation of drones from the history of the automobile? “The car, like the drone, presented new legal challenges when it was introduced, due to its transformative effects on travel, commerce and public space,” says Thomasen. “The North American history of automobile safety regulation in particular provides insight into regulatory successes and pitfalls that can inform future drone regulation.”

In a paper that will be presented in April 2015 at We Robot, the leading annual conference on robotics, law and policy, Thomasen identifies four approaches to automobile safety regulation, along with the various social, political, economic and technological factors that have affected the success of each regulatory approach. She notes that drone regulation can benefit from the lessons of the long history of car safety regulation by adopting successful regulatory approaches as early as possible.

Thomasen found that the most the most effective car safety regulations did not emerge until government and industry began to target not only driver behaviour but also, importantly, automobile design. Additionally, the most recent phase of car regulation, where safety concerns collide with privacy interests through the use of technologies like vehicle black boxes, is particularly relevant to drone regulation. According to her, “if the drone is going to be both safe to fly and privacy-friendly, regulators will need to be able to reconcile these concerns.”

When it comes to these privacy issues, she states that drone regulators can draw from the framework presented by the automobile in order to adopt the best possible approach for meeting their privacy goals, one that recognizes the role of users, drones and the environment. “The use of drones involves a balancing of risk and reward, and regulation can play an important role in mitigating the risk in order to promote the many beneficial uses of this technology,” adds Ian Kerr, Canada Research Chair in Ethics, Law and Technology, who is supervising Thomasen's doctoral dissertation.

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