The Examiner is reporting that a prototype drone crashed into a Texas Montgomery County police vehicle, causing little damage. No doubt this event will touch off a firestorm of concern over the safety of domestic unmanned aerial vehicles. Much like the Google driverless car crash, it would appear that a human being was in control of the drone when it went down. But unlike the Google car, which was reportedly in manual mode at the time of the accident, the drone should have landed safely and autonomously when it lost contact with the operator. Instead, it plowed into a (thankfully armored) SWAT vehicle.
You might think that this event has little or nothing to do with the other controversy around the domestic use of drones: privacy. Here are three ways I think they interact:
- As drones increasingly fly overhead, it will be hard to separate concerns over safety and privacy in the mind of the public. These factors will mingle to create a general sense of unease. This is one reason why the Federal Aviation Administration should take seriously the recent petition by the Electronic Privacy Information Center to initiate a rulemaking around the domestic use of drones that considers public interest factors beyond safety.
- Glitches can down drones, but so could intentional hacks. Drones must be vetted against the sorts of security vulnerabilities that allowed militants to see drone footage and permitted the capture of a U.S. military drone in Iran.
- Finally, crashes might be a canary in the coal mine of privacy (and vice versa). In this particular case, it turns out the operator was a drone provider doing a demo. But to the extent crashes point to operator carelessness, they may raise questions of adequacy of training generally. Will a hypothetical police officer that is incapable of keeping a drone within his physical control adequately safeguard privacy?