Saturday, September 20, 2014

Are We Ready for Daily-Life Drones?

This exploration illustrates how ill-prepared we are, legally and socially, for the multitude of issues and conflicts that will inevitably arise as private drones become cheap and ubiquitous.

A recent experience provided grist for a "what-if" exploration of how drones may start impacting daily life. And I don't mean delivery of packages and pizzas.

On the return drive of a trip north in summer, we were stopped for over an hour on Highway 101 by a helicopter that had landed in the middle of the four-lane highway to airlift people injured in an accident.

Since the line of stopped cars extended over a bridge and around a curve for at least a quarter-mile, we couldn't see the cause of the blockage. 

As a result, I walked all the way to the front of the line to see what was going on. Another passenger from one of the hundreds of waiting vehicles joined me and we questioned people close to the front to learn what had happened.

Apparently a car had swerved off the highway and careened down a steep, forested embankment. Several tow trucks were attempting to pull the vehicle up to the roadway with little evident success while local rescue personnel were attempting to get the injured people up to the helicopter on stretchers.

Our return to our cars was leisurely, as we stopped to brief people waiting in vehicles who had not walked to the scene. One local driver told me there was a bypass road, but he suspected it too had been blocked by the California Highway Patrol (CHP).

A radio station news employee happened to be stuck behind us, and in chatting with her we discovered her contact in the news department had been unable to get any information out of the CHP.

When the helicopter finally lifted off and traffic crawled forward, our brother-in-law Fred R. speculated how this scene would be changed by the ubiquity of personal drones.

For those who haven't seen such drones in action yet--they are small enough to fit in the trunk of a car and generally have three rotors, which enable them to move freely in all directions and hover for extended periods.

Here are some of the scenarios we foresaw playing out once having a drone in one's vehicle becomes common:

1. An attorney with a super-fast drone could race ahead of other drones, reach the scene of the accident first, record the rescue operation with an onboard camera and assess the liability issues in real time; if a legal opportunity was present, the attorney could upload the recording to associates and be "firstest with the mostest" in a legal claim.

2. A free-lance stringer with a connection to a news organization would navigate his/her drone to the accident site and record close-ups of the victims, rescue personnel at work, etc., and then upload the recording to a news bureau that would have an exclusive ("if it bleeds, it leads").

3. A techie with a drone equipped with a powerful wi-fi router could hover the drone above the scene and send the video to anyone with a wi-fi-enabled device, eliminating the need for dozens of drones to compete for airspace.

4. The CHP could ban drones from hovering over or near accident sites, except for officially sanctioned drones from government agencies and vetted news agencies.

5. Someone stuck in the traffic blockage could send their drone high enough to scope out alternative routes and zoom in to see if they were blocked, jammed or free of vehicles.

6. One of the mass of circling private drones malfunctions and crashes into another drone, causing it to crash on a rescuer, inflicting injuries. The liability thread runs in various directions: can the manufacturer of the malfunctioning drone be sued, along with its operator?

7. Frustrated by the delay and the lack of official drones/sources of information, someone breaks the law by flying their drone over the accident scene. the CHP wants to issue a citation, but how can they trace the drone to the owner if the operator is clever enough not to return the drone to his vehicle straightaway?

8. A badly injured victim of the wreck finds that graphic close-up recordings of their injuries have been shown on TV, and sues the station and stringer for invasion of privacy. Are there any limits on what private drones can record in public spaces?

This brief list shows how ill-prepared we are, legally and socially, for the multitude of issues and potential conflicts that will inevitably arise as private drones become cheap and ubiquitous.

For example: If ownership of a drone can be obscured, then how can liability be traced back to the owner/operator? Will drones be required to send the equivalent of a mobile-phone ID code or IP address? What if the owner switches this signal off? Will downing a drone invading one's privacy create liability? If so, does this trump the liability for violating privacy? How can regulations about drones possibly be enforced, much less monitored?

This essay was drawn from Musings Report 28. The weekly Musings Reports are emailed exclusively to subscribers and major contributors. 

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