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Drones are getting very common. A few of them look like planes. They even share the same airspace with planes and they are regulated like planes. But using the same airspace as planes is not the major source of concern for many—surveillance and invasion of privacy is.

A lot of anecdotes and stories have been shared about drones being used to invade the privacy of others and many feel unsafe around drones. University of Washington professor Ryan Calo describes drones as “the cold, technological embodiment of observation.” The fact that drones fly is not what makes them disliked by many. At least helicopters, planes, and other aircraft fly and they are not considered creepy.

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A big issue is that unlike manned aircraft, drones are anonymous to a large degree. They can fly at a large distance from their human operator or without the guide of anyone at all. A big example of this can be seen in the reports of drones flying over Paris and the drone that crashed into the lawn of the White House. No one knew who was flying them.

This anonymity allows drone to be used to penetrate places where their human operator could never have penetrated. They could be used to overcome security risks and could be used to enter places where their operator would not want to go due to fear of identification. Yes, drones could be designed to overcome some of this misuse and drones could be registered, but that won’t solve the problem. They can’t stop drones from overcoming boundaries or from causing security hazards in numerous ways.

Drones flying in the same airspace as aircraft have serious impact on air safety, though. It is of paramount importance that drones do not crash into aircraft or into each other as this would be immensely fatal. Drones have wider definitions beyond the airspace they fly in and these concepts should be reexamined by regulators and all major stakeholders.

Legislators, legal institutions, and the society as a whole have always understood new technologies with the help of preexisting technologies. They link the new technology with the old technology and use analogies between both. E-mail was related to letters, cars were defined as horseless carriages.

But when laws are to be applied to new technologies, care should be taken not to blur the line between the new and the old technology. “By emphasizing one aspect of a concept, a metaphor might blind us to other aspects that are inconsistent with the metaphor,” Prof. Stephanie Gore says.

Depending on how robots are being defined, some drones can be called robots. Washington University in St. Louis law professor Neil Richards and Oregon State University roboticist William Smart have argued, “If we get the metaphors wrong for robots, it could have potentially disastrous consequences.”

This is why Richards and Smart caution against designing legislation “based on the form of a robot, not the function.” Their major concern is the way robots are being treated like humans. The general public has placed too much emphasis on this, and it’s a very big miscomprehension. Very soon it may be necessary to distinguish them as much as possible.

A prime example of this is William Meredith from Kentucky who was criminally charged for shooting down a drone flying over his compound. As it turned out, the courts discovered that Meredith was trying to protect his privacy. The drone owner filed a federal complaint for declaratory judgment as the court was asked to clarify the law as it is applicable to drones. Similarities between drones, planes, and helicopters were asked to be made by the court.

The United State Supreme Court has said that viewing the area of a residential address from a manned aircraft is not an invasion of privacy. If the analogy between the plane and the drone is no longer applied, then same could be done for drone surveillance.

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It is very easy to see drones as aircraft as they share many similarities. Drones are cheap and can be gotten easily. They can also be hacked quite easily and could pose a threat for data collection, storage, and retention. The major problem is that of anonymity as the possibility of drones being misused by individuals whose identities are unknown is higher than that of manned aircraft being misused. The analogy between drones and manned aircraft should be dropped and legal institutions should clarify the differences between both. Regulators should also make all this understandable to all stakeholders.

How should drones be seen legally? Drones might be treated like aircraft when it comes to issues of air safety but how about they being treated like computers pertaining issues related to privacy. It should also be remembered that drones can be treated as a form of robots. But the major thing is everyone shouldn’t get too caught up with metaphors as drone technology is just starting and we have no idea of what the future of drone holds.

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