Civilian robotics emerge with legislative questions trailing behind


Lorain Watters

Wells Bennett, left, Benjamin Wittes, John Villasenor – on the screen – and Gregory McNeal say how federal and state governments regulate drones and other civilian robotics will affect when consumers can begin to use them.

Lorain Watters, SHF Wire Reporter

WASHINGTON –Civilian robotics are next on the list for innovation, but before everyone rushes to buy their own drone kits or driverless cars, federal and state officials need to settle laws and regulations.

The Brookings Institution held a forum Monday about the future of civilian robotics, including the prospect of automated vehicles, or driverless cars, and drones. While some individuals express excitement about flying a drone in their backyards or having a robotic car, others are apprehensive about whether they can trust a robot to drive them to work or if a drone will violate their privacy.

Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, is the editor-in-chief of Lawfare, a blog devoted to national security law. He’s interested in what people can do with drones.

“We thought it would be fun to buy off-the-shelf drones, modify them and dog-fight them and see what would happen with people who had no background in robotics, tried to have a drone-war,” Wittes said.

In 2012, Wittes and his fellows tried to hold a Drone Smackdown in D.C., but the Federal Aviation Administration ruled D.C. a no-fly zone.  The event moved to nearby Manassas, Va.

After the incident, Wittes set out to investigate how robotics are making their way into the civilian sector and the questions that raises.

Gregory McNeal, associate professor of law at Pepperdine University School of Law, recounted a story Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told about seeing a fluorescent pink remote-control helicopter outside her window.

She felt her privacy was invaded and has since advocated for government regulation of technology, mainly rule about using drones in law enforcement.

“We have manufactured controversy right now, and we have a problem with terminology. The D-word has been fetishized and demonized, so if you say drone there is no way to know if you are talking about a predator from a battlefield armed with Hellfire missiles or a fluorescent pink miniature helicopter,” McNeal said.

He said the term “drone” has been vilified as part of a legislative advocacy campaign by the American Civil Liberties Union.

McNeal debated an ACLU official about drones on a radio program. The ACLU would like to ban surveillance using drones, but admitted that is unlikely to happen.

“That’s the wrong approach. Legislators should reject it and follow a view that is harm-focused, not technology-focused. If I am concerned about a drone that is 300 feet in the air, then I should similarly be concerned about a helicopter that is parked 300 feet in the air,” McNeal said.

The Assembly and state Senate of California recently passed Assembly Bill 1327, which allows law enforcement to use aerial surveillance if it has a warrant. State and local agencies would be required to announce what their intentions are for using drones before buying them. They would have to destroy data after a certain time. The bill awaits the governor’s signature.

If individuals fear that the government is going to have a record of them collected over time, McNeal proposed retention procedures. He said that after 30 days, a court order would be needed for access, after 60 to 90 days, a warrant would be needed and after five years, the data would be destroyed.

John Villasenor, senior fellow at Governance Studies and the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings, said the current legal system is capable of sorting out issues of privacy and liability without introducing a new federal rules for civilian robotics.

He said that resolving issues about automated vehicles should not be predetermined because legislation cannot anticipate all of the product liability and other questions that will arise in the next 20 years.

The public has already seen a glimpse of some of the automated features in their own cars, including cruise control and driver-assist technologies such as automatic braking and parallel parking.

“What we don’t have is something on the other side of the spectrum – you get into the back seat and are whisked away to your destination while you read. You can’t buy a car right now that does that, but it is being tested,” Villasenor said. “The issues with getting more autonomous vehicles on the road are the technology itself and the laws. To what extent will states allow autonomous vehicles on the road?”

Reach reporter Lorain Watters at [email protected] or 202-408-1494. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter​.