Drones: The Good, the bad and the ugly

VANCOUVER – Until recently drones have for the most part been associated with warfare. They still are, but their use is now going beyond conflict zones to the point they could be landing on your doorstep in a few years’ time.

Amazon said its commercial delivery drones won’t be ready for at least five years, but once (or even if) the plan goes into operation the online retail giant aims to have orders flown to customers’ homes within 30 minutes.

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READ MORE: sees delivery drones as future

Drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are expected to become a fixture in the skies in the coming years, with one estimate suggesting there could be as many as 30,000 drones hovering in American airspace by 2020.

The U.S. government, meanwhile, won’t be approving licences for personal or commercial use of the remote aircraft devices 2015, according to a Reuters report earlier this year.

Drones are already in use in many ways — some welcome, some controversial.

The good

Well, getting that latest must-have book in a matter of minutes, rather than two to three business days, is certainly a pro for many online shoppers.

The devices may also serve as a key tool for non-government and aid organizations in providing relief and assisting with recovery efforts following disasters.

A Danish company called Danoffice IT has been touting its work in the Philippines amid a state of calamity in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.

Haiyan, one of the strongest storms to ever make landfall anywhere in the world, destroyed much of the central city of Tacloban.

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In a Nov. 15 press release, Danoffice IT said it was donating a “civil drone” and one of its drone specialists to help humanitarian groups assess the damage in Tacloban.

Since the equipment arrived in the country on Nov. 17, it has been used to assess debris fields, pinpoint blocked roads and to help locate bodies for retrieval.

“When organisations first saw it here, they thought it was a bit of a toy. But when they realized all the different uses you could do like body retrieval, road clearance, you name it, I think this is a tool that will be used in every future disaster,” Danoffice IT sales manager Liam Dawson told Reuters last week.

Use of drones to capture footage of conflict zones is also on the rise.

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UAVs hovering above the site of anti-government protests in Thailand were able to capture clashes between demonstrators and security forces on Sunday, offering a better perspective of what was unfolding at the scene.

The United Nations, which has also expressed concern about the use of armed drones (see below), plans to deploy unarmed surveillance drones as a part of its peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Associated Press reported on Monday five drones will become “an essential tool” in the peacekeeping mission’s military plan in the country’s conflict-ridden eastern region, along the borders with Rwanda and Uganda.

UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told The Associated Press the drones would be used to monitor rebel groups and militias operating in the region, following the recent defeat of the M23 rebel group.

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The (possibly) bad

UAVs may be perfect for getting a bird’s eye view of a disaster or conflict zone, but they’re also perfect for keeping an eye on people in ways traditional surveillance methods cannot, with or without official approval.

With thousands of remote-controlled drones set to take to the skies over the U.S., some U.S. politicians are raising red flags about privacy and circumventing the law to keep tabs on people.

Ohio congressman Rex Damschroder is concerned about the potential for law-enforcement agencies to use drones to monitor civilians without legal permission.

A small surveillance drone flies during the annual military exercises held for the media at the Bergen military training grounds on October 2, 2013 near Munster, Germany. Photo by Philipp Guelland/Getty Images. Philipp Guelland / Getty Images

“Right now police can’t come into your house without a search warrant,” Damschroder told The Associated Press in August. “But with drones, they can come right over your backyard and take pictures.”

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Damschroder is one of several U.S. legislators to propose bills concerning UAVs. His proposed bill “would prohibit law enforcement agencies from using drones to get evidence or other information without a search warrant,” The Associated Press reported.

“We need to do everything possible to prevent a Big Brother society where government exerts too much control of our lives or has too much access to our private information,” he said in a June 12 statement.

Although much of the existing drone regulation in Canada is in regards to the safety, there is some protection in place for Canadians when it comes to  privacy.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner said drones used for “surveillance of Canadians or the collection of personal information are subject to the same privacy law requirements as with any other data collection practice,” as covered by the Personal Information Protection Electronic Documents Act.

But Canada’s Office of the Privacy Commissioner has raised the issue of drones being used for domestic spying by hobbyists.

“Current regulations governing drone operations have more to do with ensuring their safe flight, and do little to address the privacy implications of having Canadian skies filled with hovering data-collecting robots,” the privacy czar’s report said.

The concern has to do with model aircraft the Privacy Commissioner’s Office said “can be virtually indistinguishable from other small UAVs.”

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“While aviation authorities such as the FAA and Transport Canada are focused on developing rules for the operation of small drones, model aircraft [which a small camera could be mounted on] may actually be left entirely unregulated despite the fact they can often operate in much the same way as UAVs operating for commercial or other purposes such as surveillance,” the report stated.

The (potentially) ugly

The use of armed drones in warfare has raised concern for human rights groups and the UN.

According to some human rights groups, the U.S. military’s use of drones in its counter-terrorism efforts has led to a number of civilian deaths. But the number of deaths caused by drone attacks, in Pakistan at least, has been questioned.

Picture taken on the tarmac of Kandahar military airport on June 13, 2010 of a US Predator unmanned drone armed with a missile. Photo by Massoud Hossiani (AFP)/Getty Images. Massoud Hossiani (AFP)/Getty Images

In October of this year, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) both called on the United States to be held accountable for civilian lives lost in Pakistan and Yemen because of drone attacks on perceived threats.

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Amnesty International went so far as to say a July 2012 attack in Pakistan’s North Waziristan province that left 18 labourers dead may “constitute war crimes or extrajudicial executions.”

In a joint statement on Oct. 22, Amnesty and HRW urged the Obama administration to “investigate attacks that kill civilians and hold those responsible for violations to account.”

The groups also questioned the legality of the U.S. using the technology to carry out targeted attacks in countries — Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia — where it was not fighting a war.

“The USA continues to rely on a ‘global war’ doctrine to attempt to justify a borderless war with al-Qa’ida, the Taliban and those perceived to be their allies,” Amnesty said.

A recent UN evaluation of the use of drones in warfare expressed “concern” about the possibility of UAVs being used for “illegal” purposes — by all states, not just the U.S.

Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson said on Oct. 25 there needs to be more transparency when it comes to how drones are used.

“A world where multiple states use such weapons in secrecy is a less secure world,” Emmerson said.

But the unmanned aircraft also has its supporters. “All the evidence we have so far suggests that drones do better at both identifying the terrorist and avoiding collateral damage than anything else we have,” Bradley J. Strawser, a former Air Force officer and a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, told the The New York Times.

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With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press

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