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Drones or UAS? What You Call That Thing Flying Around Up There Matters

The question posed in the title of this article may seem trivial to some, but the truth is: what you call that thing flying around up there matters because public perception of technology employed by public safety agencies matter. A good example of public perception of UAS is found in the public’s reaction to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012. In this Act, the FAA's Administrator was required to establish a program to integrate UAS into the national airspace system at six test ranges.

In large part, the public’s reaction ranged from caution to outright fear that UAS in the National Airspace meant Orwell’s “Big Brother” would be “watching” all of us; and, depending on the UAS, we may not even know it. The dominant thoughts for these people were that law enforcement and federal government agencies would soon be flying UAS over Joe Public’s backyard just looking for reasons to arrest them, or worse, eventually use weaponized versions of UAS to “take out” criminals from the sky.

Joe Public’s perception of UAS is the problem and it starts with confusion and ignorance of the terms ‘UAS’ and ‘drone.’ Many see the two terms as synonymous. However, perception is reality, and the public perceives UAS as drones and that drones are a bad thing.

A google search using the key words “drone strike” returns headlines on the first page that say: “Drone Strike Leaves 7 Militants Dead in Paktia Province”, “U.S. Carries Out Drone Strike Against Shabab Militants…”, and “Afghan Official: US Drone Strike Kills 4 IS Militants” among others. These two key words return 19,100,000 results. Since the public perceives UAS as drones, it is most likely that concerned citizens will use these key words; but even if they replace the word drone with UAS, the problem persists.

A Google search using the key words “UAS strike” returns first page headlines that include “Suspected U.S. Drone Strike Targets Pakistani Taliban”, “US Drone Strike Kills Three Civilians, Four ‘Suspects’…”, and “Official: ISIS Leader Killed by U.S. Drone Strike in…”. These two key words return 36,200,000 results. Whether the public chooses to refer to a UAS or a drone, search engine results are very similar and feed pre-conceived perceptions.

A Google search using the key words “drone privacy” returns 159,000,000 results. On the first page, headlines read: “Privacy Issues with Commercial Drones - Business Insider”, “Drones and Privacy A Looming Threat - The Economist”, and “A Battlefield of Drones and Privacy in Your Backyard.”

It is when we do an internet search using both keywords UAS and privacy that different results appear; and, the headlines change: “Voluntary Best Practices for UAS Privacy, Transparency...”, “UAS Privacy, Data Protection, and Property Rights Issues”, and “Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Regulations & Policies”, etc. These 2 key words return 145,000,000 results; however, the reader’s pre-conceived perception precludes the reader from using UAS as a key word. Thus, the negatively-perceived headlines win.

Given the results returned from simple Google searches, it is easy to see why the public is much more familiar with the term drone than the term UAS. It is also easy to see why the public may perceive their use by law enforcement as negative. We won’t dive into the difference between a drone and a UAS, what they are or how they are employed by public safety agencies. The point is that, perception matters; and, how you help those in your community perceive UAS is of critical importance.

The last thing you want to do is successfully complete all the necessary steps to acquire a UAS only to end up like the Seattle Police Chief in 2013. The Seattle Police Department acquired a UAS but were forced by the mayor to abandon their plans to use it. Public outcry regarding privacy concerns was noted as the primary reason for the mayor’s decision.

In the media accounts concerning Seattle Doug Honig, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington, called it a wise decision because, “Drones would have given police unprecedented abilities to engage in surveillance and intrude on people’s privacy and there was never a strong case made that Seattle needed the drones for public safety.”

There are three things of importance in Mr. Honig’s statement:
1) He called them drones, he did not call them UAS.
2) While the UAS would have given the department unprecedented abilities to engage in surveillance Mr. Honig adds “and intrude on people’s privacy”
3) Seattle police never made a strong case that the UAS were needed for public safety.

Mr. Honig’s comment provides valuable insight and lessons:
1) Don’t call it a drone.
2) Assure your community that your UAS will not be employed for spying on them or to kill bad guys.
3) Make sure they know that state laws (in the majority of cases) preclude privacy and hostile UAS acts altogether (check your state laws concerning UAS use by public safety personnel); and
4) Build a strong case to support the use of UAS. Deputy Chief Land discusses this in-depth in the 400-ft. View Installment 1.

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