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On consumer drones, anonymous bullies, and getting smarter

By Craig Janssen

Behind the Sydney Opera House is a gorgeous park. I’d just spent the week “down under” at InfoComm in my role as Chair of the Leadership Search Committee. As with the rest of the team, we’d logged days on the trade show floor immersed in the latest cutting-edge AV technology.

Living in Dallas, I miss the sound of the ocean, so it felt great to be in Australia. (I spent most of my adolescence on a beachfront.) So, Sunday morning having no business responsibilities, I took a walk.

The park behind the Opera House is several acres, and I found myself alone, enjoying the soundscape.

As I walked, I began to notice a buzzing noise. At first, I thought it was some nearby dragonfly. But within moments, it was unmistakable. I looked up and saw the drone.

I continued my walk and found it followed me. The drone moved closer and closer until it was suddenly at eye level about 15 feet away.

I diverted my path toward the trees.

It followed.

So I reached down, picked up a big stick, turned around and smiled at the camera.

The drone backed off.

The pilot’s choice to disrupt my solitude, then harass and intimidate was deliberate.

It is frustrating to encounter an anonymous bully hiding behind technology.

Consumer drones are getting better. Which is making them more problematic.

The models at the top end of the market are sophisticated. There is tracking technology, autonomous flight, obstacle avoidance and one-touch flight planning. We’ve all seen some of the incredible video footage that the drones are producing. Panoramas of vistas that most never get to see.

Each year, the technology improves. Right now, battery life limits flight times to approximately 30-minutes, but that will increase.

Most of us understand that drones are a technology that is both powerful and dangerous.

Small package delivery [via Amazon] will be available in the future. Drones can scout terrain during natural disasters to find survivors and document damage. Not to mention, they are fun. My team works with owners of stadia, arenas, and auditoria that use drones to capture footage for the big screen at events.

Unfortunately, the advances aren’t just on the positive side.

The technology is creating problems we haven’t encountered before. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger when interviewed on the CBS program, Face the Nation, said, “”Imagine what a device … can do that might weigh 25 or possibly up to 55 pounds to bring down an airplane. It is not a matter of if it will happen. It is a matter of when it will happen.”

Policy is chasing to catch up. As is counter-drone technology.

States such as Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont and Wisconsin have passed legislation that contain limits on armed drones.

In 2013, a teenager in Connecticut put a gun on his homemade drone and posted the video to YouTube. It went viral. But, the FAA didn’t have legislation in place to pursue him. It would seem that he didn’t overtly break any laws.

In fact, there is much confusion on who has jurisdiction in a case like this. Is it the FAA, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or the individual states themselves?

Many industries are trying to get ahead of the problem, including the government, sports teams and stadia, amusement parks, airports, and universities. When it comes to counter-drone technology such as jammers, electromagnetic pulses, snaggers (nets) and sonic blasts, the legalities get complicated fast.

Bryan Llenas reported on FOX’s America’s Newsroom that so far, the largest customer for counter-drone technology is the Department of Defense. He said that the biggest area of concern is the ability to stop a swarm.

While all of that is troubling to both myself and our clients, I find my more emotional response is to the personal nature of being bullied anonymously.

So, back to my original problem, what do we do about anonymous bullies?

In a world of social media, we’ve quickly learned about the dark side of anonymity. It can be benignly irritating like a troll in a forum or more sinister such as bullying teenagers to the point of taking their own lives.

The anonymity offered to bullies on social media is also provided by the remote joystick of a drone.

While most pilots never think about the anonymous aspect of the technology, others exploit it to observe and intimidate people.

Here’s the thing: We get to decide what we do about that. We don’t get to be victims.

We can say something about it and make it an issue. We can influence policy — both limiting what is invasive and empowering the ability to use counter-measures.

These are not trivial problems. They will not go away unless we make them go away.

I’m a technologist and I celebrate tech wholeheartedly, but we have a responsibility.

We have to get smarter.

I want to live in a world where my daughter can enjoy all the fun of technology without finding herself headed for trees and looking for a stick.

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