Saturday, January 31, 2015


A friend of mine told me of an incident that happened while she was working outside of her home. They live in the country and the rest of the family was gone. She was tending to their garden when she heard an odd noise. An eerie feeling came over her. She suspected that she was being watched but couldn’t place the source. She is convinced that a drone of some kind had flown over her property. Along with the invasion of privacy, she felt a deep sense of personal violation.

No American should have to feel this way. An intense debate is underway in Washington over the use of drones—an especially sensitive subject with competing privacy and security concerns. America is increasingly turning to drones for purposes that range from science to economics to national security. Drones facilitate difficult research, flying into wilderness areas and harsh climates where people cannot travel. Entrepreneurs use them for commercial reasons. Farmers are deploying the technology for better crop management.

Congress first mandated developing drones for military missions. Drones have effectively gathered intelligence, and in some cases crippled terrorist leadership structures without risk to troops. On battlefields without defined borders, drones have been integrated into defense strategy. The United States remains the world leader in developing and applying this technology, but soon enough small and undetectable drones might begin flying from other nations into our territory. Imagine an undetected armed drone nearing a crowded football stadium.

This week a commercial drone crashed on the White House grounds. The incident triggered worry about the President’s security. Initial accounts indicated that a civilian was piloting the “quadcopter” for recreational purposes when a problem sent the drone plunging onto the White House lawn. It turns out the individual was a government employee. One thing is clear: as the technology becomes less expensive, these flying objects will become more pervasive.

A balance must be struck between using drones appropriately for research, socially beneficial market innovation, and national security—while also protecting civil liberties and personal privacy. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has compiled a roadmap for integrating unmanned aircraft systems into national airspace; however, the FAA has not completed the congressionally mandated set of regulations for proper government and commercial use. A Congressional Research Service report has highlighted a myriad of potential legal difficulties of drone proliferation. The President has expanded drone programs, but after the White House incident, he is now calling for more regulations. In 2015, Congress must reauthorize funding for the FAA, perhaps providing a broader legislative platform for the debate on the future use of drones in our country.

When I was a child, I enjoyed building and flying model airplanes. I had to warm the engine with a battery and carefully start the propeller with a finger. Then I flew the plane in a circle by controlling two wires that connected to the rudder. Technology has certainly changed. As 21st century advances in engineering, robotics, and aeronautics continues, the drone debate raises deeper questions about how technology must serve the good of society and not infringe upon basic liberties.

About the Author:

JEFF FORTENBERRY has served as the U.S. Representative for Nebraska's 1st congressional district since 2005. He is the Chairperson for the Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry. Vice Chair of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights and has a seat on the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. He is a member of the following Caucus groups: Civil War Battlefield Caucus - Congressional Biofuels Caucus - Congressional Farmer Cooperative Caucus - House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus - International Conservation Caucus - Sportsmen's Caucus.

Congressman Fortenberry has become the most knowledgeable representative on Capitol Hill for nuclear security issues.

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