When people think of drones, the image that often comes to mind is a military strike in a far-off land—which might explain why a majority of Americans currently oppose allowing more drones in American skies. Despite these fears, drone sales in America are skyrocketing—sales have tripled in the last year—and hobbyists, government agencies, humanitarian organizations, and businesses are finding innovative and helpful ways to use them. SPIA Professor of Practice Jim Moran recently convened a panel on Capitol Hill where Senator Mark Warner and an expert panel discussed the challenges and opportunities presented by drones in America.

When a drone crashed on the White House lawn in October 2015, many feared a terrorist attack. As it turned out, the crash was hobbyist’s accident—as was a similar event in January of that year—but it amplified the safety, security, and privacy concerns that drones present. How can we ensure drones are being operated safely, especially near airports and over people? How can we secure important buildings and critical infrastructure from weaponized drones aiming to attack? And how can we keep drones with cameras from snooping in places where they don’t belong?

State and local governments have been grappling with these questions for the last several years, as detailed by panelist David Ransom, a legal expert from McDermott Will & Emery. From 2013-2015, 283 state bills were introduced to regulate drones, and 46 passed. The Oregon legislature, for example, attempted to make it a Class A misdemeanor to weaponize a drone. Kansas tried to expand the definition of harassment in its Protection from Stalking Act to include certain uses of drones. And Tennessee made it a crime to fly a drone within 250 feet of a critical infrastructure facility for the purpose of conducting surveillance.

Senator Mark Warner greets SPIA Associate Professor Patrick Roberts, while Bruce Walker and David Ransom look on.

Senator Mark Warner greets SPIA Associate Professor Patrick Roberts, while Bruce Walker and David Ransom look on.

Drones present real fears—but how are they actually being used? SPIA Associate Professor Patrick Roberts pointed to a recent analysis of stories about drones in the news, which found that the majority of drone use was for recreation, scientific research, environmental and wildlife conservation, and commerce. Panelist Bruce Walker of Northrop Grumman illustrated some of these uses, describing how its Global Hawk system provided imagery to assist with disaster relief after the Haiti earthquake, and got images to the Japanese government within 12 hours of the tsunami and nuclear disaster there. The potential uses for drones are seemingly limitless—from tracking hurricanes, to fighting deforestation by sowing tree seeds, to delivering packages for Amazon.com.

But many of these new uses depend upon “rules of the road” being established—something that the federal government is only just beginning to get its arms around. Panelist Marke “Hoot” Gibson of the Federal Aviation Administration confirmed that the agency’s first rule establishing parameters for commercial drone use was expected within the next few months. And Rose Mooney of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership—an FAA-designated drone test range based at Virginia Tech—discussed research that will form the foundation for future regulation, such as controlling drones that fly beyond the user’s line of sight, as well as future technological advances to keep drones safe, like “geofencing” that could help keep drones away from critical infrastructure.

According to the FAA’s Gibson, a former Air Force pilot and Director of North American Aerospace Defense Command, the development of unmanned aircraft systems is a more fundamental change in aviation than the introduction of the jet engine. Senator Warner, who made his fortune as an early investor in the cellular telephone industry, called drones as significant a technological development as the cell phone. As government hurries to keep pace, it will have to balance safety, security, and privacy against innovation in this promising new technology.