There is no doubt that drones are going to drastically improve our lives. Drones are already being used to deliver medical supplies in third-world countries, survey land, film live events, assist police in investigations and surveillance, inspect tall buildings and other large structures, among other things. But, these advances in technology will come with a price when it comes to safety and preventing terrorism in the United States.
Drones have reportedly already been used by drug cartels to smuggle drugs into the United States and to infiltrate prisons to deliver drugs, money and cell phones. It has also been reported that ISIS is using both weaponized and surveillance drones. Suicide drones are becoming an increasing problem in Syria given the ease of access to equipment for a small amount of money.
While drones will be able to improve our lives, they also have dark potential. The question seems to be not if but when a drone will be used in the United States to carry out a terrorist attack. The question that we need to answer is this: How do lawmakers stop terrorists from using drone technology to carry out attacks here in the United States?
From a policy perspective, what can U.S. lawmakers do, if anything, to prevent such an attack? While lawmakers here have been relatively silent on the issue, China has enacted a number of rules limiting where drones can legally fly. However, this is only a piece of the puzzle as legislators have no meaningful way to enforce these laws. For now at least, we will have to rely on drone manufacturers to incorporate safety features to prevent use by terrorists.
One of the largest drone manufacturers, DJI, is currently developing a Geospatial Environment Online system (“GEO”). This system will provide flyers with up-to-date guidance regarding areas where flight may be limited by regulation or raise safety concerns. More importantly, the GEO will be able to limit drones, by default, from taking off or flying into areas that may raise safety or security concerns such as major stadium events, prisons, or nuclear power plants. The ability to control where drones can be flown, and detect how they are being used, will be vital to ensuring our national security.
Someday relatively soon drones will be used in the United States to deliver packages, groceries, emergency medical supplies, and conduct police surveillance, among many other things. But protecting us from terrorists that will try to use them to carry out terrorist attacks, for good or for bad, may largely fall on the shoulders of drone manufacturers—not U.S. lawmakers.
Tressie E. McKeon is an associate in the firm’s Litigation Department and head of its Aviation practice, resident in its Dallas office.