Upside, downside of drones focus of panel discussion in Lafayette
By Lou Fancher
Drones, the autonomous flying devices that are frequent subjects of headline news, have two firmly entrenched camps: "drones are cool" and "drones are bad."
But the future of aerial technology is that proponents promise new frontiers will be opened, and objectors argue that civil liberties will be violated.
A panel of experts recently discussed drones and their impact on everyday lives at a Science Cafe at the Lafayette Library. The discussion was moderated by SETI senior research scientist Margaret Race, and speakers included Jeremy Gillula, staff technologist of the Electronic Frontier Foundation; Brian Patrick Green, assistant director of campus ethics at Santa Clara University School of Engineering; and Mike Semmelmeyer, former U.S. Navy air traffic controller and retail consultant at Main Street Property.
Race said that because Federal Aviation Administration policies and regulations are in a state of flux, the use and application of drones is "stuck."
Last week, the FAA and the Transportation Department have announced requirements for current and future recreational drone users to register their unmanned aircraft with the government before Christmas.
Semmelmeyer learned about model rocketry from his grandfather, expanded his understanding of air safety as a Navy air traffic controller and finds himself reluctant to use the DJI drone his company purchased for approximately $1,500.
"It's amazing how simple this technology is to use. But since (Main Street) purchased this a year-and-a-half ago, the regulations have changed substantially," he said. "I don't use it in my business anymore."
Regulations that protect people's property from possible damage keep him in limbo. .
Green focuses primarily on the ethical use of technology and laid out the upside and downside dynamics.
"If we're overly fearful of all the abstract future downsides of technology, we wouldn't have airplanes and computers. But if we (had been) overly cautious, we might not have (to worry about) nuclear, biological or chemical weapons."
With drones, Green said the positives and negatives are rolling out concurrently. Drones' versatility and economics aid commerce, industry or humanitarian causes; nonlethal use (including reconnaissance) by the military saves lives; and drones contribute to underwater research and space exploration.
Countering that, people using drones have interfered with the work of firefighters, packets of drugs or weapons have been dropped into prisons, and the use of drones by terrorists is a realistic concern.
People's need for freedom and to innovate, Green said, fuels the search for new technology, but creates an endless cycle that requires new technology to cancel the bad consequences and promote the good aspects.
Gillula said drones have been around a long time.They used to be gas-powered, but now, the electronics and software are rapidly becoming smaller and cheaper.
Drones' increasing versatility and reduced price means they're not only toys, but powerful tools for inspecting utility lines, or use in art shows, agriculture and law enforcement.
Gillula said law enforcement uses may lead to natural versions: drones disguised to resemble hummingbirds.
"How can we get them to perch on power lines and recharge themselves? I kid you not, researchers are looking into it."
Going out on a limb, Gillula predicted that drones may someday replace pilots on commercial-size jets. Audience questions cast doubt on his predictions, with many expressing concerns about lost drones running rampant. Solutions were limited, but included using existing laws to limit "peeping Tom" drones, mandating safety instruction compliance, and engineering the products to have controls limiting their