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Drones: Boon or Bane?

At the opening ceremony of last year’s Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, an extraordinary (albeit pre-recorded) light show mesmerized the crowd and also set a Guinness World Record. What was it that set it apart from the ordinary? It was carried out by drones, all 1,218 of them. The previous record involved less than half of that.

If anything, the occasion further cemented the fact that drones are fast becoming a staple in the fabric of daily life in many countries. Here in the Philippines, they are very popular among hobbyists and professionals who use them for filmmaking and photography work. And why not? Their combined trait of mobility and affordability allows scenic shots and footages only moneyed studios and film production companies previously had the means for.

But it doesn’t end there. With each passing day, people are finding other practical uses for these so-called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs):

Surveillance Support. A drone is an excellent surveillance and reconnaissance tool. During the Marawi conflict in 2017, UAVs were reportedly used by both sides. Among the notable acquisitions by the Philippine Air Force under the current administration are UAVs from Israel’s Elbit Systems, which now form part of its Medium Altitude Long Endurance Unmanned Aerial Systems (MALE UAS). Last year, the PNP also announced their plan to deploy 700 drones to their regional units.

Traffic Management Support. The Metropolitan Manila Development Authority have said that they will also start using drones to monitor traffic and flooding, especially during the rainy season. In June 2018, they already tested a few units during the first day of classes.

  • Disaster Management. Both the government and the private sector are now tapping UAVs to assist in disaster management. The government is working with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in using drones to identify farmlands most at risk from natural disasters. In 2016, drones were deployed to pinpoint areas most affected by El Niño. In the private sector, there’s the joint effort by Nokia, SMART Communications, and the Philippine Red Cross (PRC). Their drone program hopes to provide communications technology and technical assistance to emergency response teams operating in calamities and disaster zones.
  • Agriculture. Another government-sponsored project makes use of drones in conducting aerial spraying missions. The idea is to make agriculture management more efficient and to keep farmers away from the harmful effects of chemicals.
  • Land Survey and Infrastructure Inspection. Even civil society groups have taken a liking to UAVs. The Asia Foundation, for instance, is working with both government and the private sector to promote the use of drones for land surveying which is essential for land titling. They believe that, with a more efficient and more affordable land-titling process, some boundary disputes will be resolved faster. People will have better access to credit, too, because of the availability of titled property as collateral.
  • News Reporting. Drones have also been used by different news outlets in providing aerial video footages of disaster-stricken areas and of daily traffic updates.

Of course, drones are hounded by issues as well, just like any new technology. These past couple of years, a number of incidents abroad highlight the risks they pose if no means of control or regulation are put in place. One could classify these risks into three distinct categories:

  • Safety. There is irony in the fact that drones, despite being equipped with a powerful camera, technically fly blind. Operators are often preoccupied with the images they broadcast and this prevents them from actually steering UAVs clear of low-lying obstructions and other aircraft. At the same time, it’s also very difficult for other aircraft to spot drones given their small size. To date, there is already a growing number of collisions and close calls between drones and passenger planes. And while none of them have yet to result in a major disaster, many believe it’s just a matter of time.
  • Security. Drones are famously known for being effective weapon delivery systems of the military. Now, though, with just about anyone having the ability to get one, drones can also be used as a weapon by anyone. Many modern-day conflict areas attest to this. Combatants have deployed drones to conduct bombing sorties, or at least to do reconnaissance work. Authorities believe it won’t be long before similar missions are carried out in cities by terrorists or criminals. So great is the fear surrounding this prospect that Gatwick Airport in the UK was shut down for 1.5 days last December 2018 after a drone was spotted nearby. That incident left 140,000 passengers stranded.
  • Privacy. Any device carrying a camera will almost always give rise to privacy concerns. As it happens, a typical drone is one such device. What increases people’s anxiety is that UAVs make traditional barriers like walls and fences inadequate or utterly useless. Across the globe, people are sharing harrowing accounts of about drones venturing into their homes uninvited. Such encounters often leave them feeling helpless, with very few laws out there that actually prohibit or regulate drone use. Where such policies do exist, other issues like identifying the operator of a device make relief difficult to obtain.

In taking stock of these issues, it becomes apparent how important it is to provide control mechanisms in relation to the use of drones, whether they be technological or policy in nature. After all, while the list of their potential uses seems endless, this view is shared by all, including those who wish to inflict harm or at least cause distress upon others.

To some extent, Filipinos could take comfort in the somewhat advanced reaction of some legislators to drone-related problems. That there are proposals for their regulation in Congress and local government units is at least an indicator that there is some awareness about the dangers they present. Statements by some proponents, though, betray their poor grasp of the issues. They need to consult with those in the know if their drone policies are to be effective. Civil society and other stakeholders must become involved, too. For the companies behind these devices, they should acknowledge that they also have responsibilities over the things they create. If there are security measures that can be built into these devices, they should adopt those as soon as possible. This approach, which comes front all fronts, best ensures that drones continue their steady flight towards the future, without having to sacrifice people’s security and other fundamental freedoms.

For more information about this topic, check out the briefing paper by the Foundation for Media Alternatives.

Jamael Jacob (@jamjacob) is a lawyer specializing in the field of law, ICT, and human rights. He is currently the Director of the University Data Protection Office of the Ateneo de Manila University, and Policy and Legal Advisor to the Foundation for Media Alternatives. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the organizations he is currently affiliated with.

Tags: drones, privacy