: Drones: the need for debate and regulation

Drones: the need for debate and regulation

Justin Randle

Technological development has led to a massive proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles (‘UAV’) and unmanned aerial systems (‘UAS’) — often referred to as drones — in defence, law enforcement and civilian settings.

The uses of drones are wide and varied including agricultural and emergency services, journalism and surveillance. They can also be lethal. President Obama has presided over a major increase in a multi-agency network of drones carrying out extrajudicial assassinations of suspected ‘militants,’ particularly in Northern Pakistan.

Recent media reports indicate that US drone attacks have been conducted at the direction of Australian special forces. Separately, the media has reported that Australian law enforcement agencies including Queensland Police, Victoria Police and Australian Federal Police are looking at acquiring drone technology for ‘potential operational use’.

Too often decisions in relation to developing, acquiring and using drones take place without debate or adequate regulation of the ethical issues they present. Proliferation is occurring in a legal vacuum, presenting alarming implications particularly regarding civil liberties. The Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (‘CASA’) has taken some steps in relation to drones, including developing rules around UAV pilot accreditation. However, the issues in relation to using drones go far beyond safety, which is CASA’s remit. Peter Gibson, from CASA, recently acknowledged this, saying ‘there’s going to need to be some community debate about the privacy issues … and governments, the aviation industry and community will need to come to some views on that.’

There is currently an opportunity for Australian law makers to give serious consideration to the development of a national responsible drone use framework. It should be in accordance with Australia’s human rights obligations and privacy principles, including any statutory right to privacy, which is currently being considered by the Attorney-General’s department. Such a framework should aspire to establish best practice in relation to the use of drones, underpinned by accountability mechanisms, respect for human rights and judicial recourse.

JUSTIN RANDLE is a former ministerial adviser working in public policy.

(2012) 37(3) AltLJ 202
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