It’s official: drones are now mainstream. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that consumers purchased 1 million drones — or if you prefer to use the more cumbersome technical term “Unmanned Aerial Systems” (UAS) — during the past holiday season alone. Fears about how government agencies might use data collected by drones, however, have led to bans against public agencies operating drones across the country. These concerns about individual privacy are important, but they are obstructing an important discussion about the benefits drones can bring to government operations. A more constructive approach to policymaking begins by asking: how do we want government agencies to use drones?
Reticence amongst policymakers to allow public agencies to operate drones is valid. There are legitimate concerns about how government agencies will collect, stockpile, mine, and have enduring access to data collected. And to make things more complicated, the FAA has clear jurisdictional primacy, but has not set out any clear direction on future regulations. Nonetheless, policymakers and citizens should keep in mind that drones are more than just a series of challenges to privacy and “being under the thumb” of Federal agencies. Drones also offer local public agencies exciting opportunities to expand ambulatory care, deliver other government services more effectively, and support local innovation.