It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a…drone?

But what is a drone anyway? If you’ve been living under a rock (perhaps trying to avoid surveillance), let me give you the basic idea. Drones can be defined simply as ‘small aircraft without onboard pilots’ (Mcneal 2016, p.354). Think of a remote control helicopter, but taken to the next level. These devices have cameras built into them so their flight path can be controlled from great distances. As per usual when it comes to rapidly advancing technology, drones have become more affordable and it is now quite realistic for average civilians to have their very own drone. But what are the consequences of this?

Thanksgiving 2014
Drones by Andrew Turner (CC BY 2.0)

Firstly, having this kind of technology at our disposal is a source of great entertainment. Youtuber Marques Brownlee and EDM producer Deadmau5 showed the fun of simply flying drones around. Another popular Youtube content creator, Pewdiepie, managed to attach his phone to a drone in order to play the game Pokemon Go without leaving his home. Moreover, there are many practical uses such as farmers using drones to measure crop growth, flying them to your doorstep to deliver packages, or tackling search and rescue operations using infrared to spot body heat. Drones are especially well-suited for surveillance purposes, but this poses an ethical dilemma. Should anyone with enough money to buy these remote-controlled aircraft be allowed to fly them without restrictions? And if not, how could restrictions be enforced?

Drone by Tony Alter (CC BY 2.0)

If  we can utilise drones to take photos and video of whatever we choose, this inevitably leads to invasion of privacy. Imagine a child at the beach, like in the picture above, who suddenly notices a drone watching them from above. Unlike someone hiding in a bush for example, a drone is not so easy to chase down or identify. Furthermore, celebrities have suffered from increased paparazzi harassment via drones and partly due to their rallying against this, ‘the Governor of California signed a bill making flying a device over private property to capture sound and video a physical invasion of privacy’ (Tate 2016, p.80). There are numerous other laws in place that govern issues in this area, but legislation alone doesn’t mean this behaviour will stop.

Protests by Karan Jain (CC BY SA-2.0)

On the other hand, drones do have positive benefits to society in the context of surveillance as well. Expanding on my previous post about surveillance and the police, drones can be used in similar ways. Waghorn (2016) explores the use of drones in protests, stating that protestors can create a panopticon, where the police watching over them also feel the threat of being watched and are more likely to act justly. While not without flaw, this method could certainly assist in preventing police brutality, or at least obtaining evidence of such occurrences.

Although I have tried to discuss some of the relevant points about drones, particularly regarding surveillance, this is a multi-faceted issue and one side I haven’t covered here is that of military drones. This is a very controversial area and worth exploring further if you found this post interesting, so if you’d like to, you can listen to this short podcast I created:


McNeal, GS 2016, ‘Drones and the Future of Aerial Surveillance’, George Washington Law Review, 84, 2, p. 354, Publisher Provided Full Text Searching File, EBSCOhost, viewed 10 September 2016.

Tate, A 2016, ‘Miley Cyrus and the Attack of the Drones: The Right of Publicity and Tabloid Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems’, Texas Review Of Entertainment & Sports Law, 17, 1, pp. 73-99, Legal Source, EBSCOhost, viewed 10 September 2016.

Waghorn, NJ 2016, ‘Watching the watchmen: resisting drones and the “protester panopticon”‘, Geographica Helvetica, 71, 2, pp. 99-108, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 10 September 2016.


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