To Prevent Whistleblowing, Encourage Whistleblowing
Are the new Corporate Inversion Rules Ethical?

Legal and Ethical Concerns of Commercial Drone Use

Privacy and Responsibility Standards need to be Developed

In February 2012 the U.S. Congress passed the FAA Modernization & Reform Act, which created a four-year road map for the introduction of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) -- better known as “drones” — into U.S. airspace. We’re all familiar with the use of drones in warfare and monitoring weather and inspecting bridges to patrolling borders and conducting search-and-rescue activities. But no one seems to stop and consider the legal and ethical issues of using drones to invade the privacy of others or for commercial use.

There are plenty of news articles about upset beachgoers and private property owners whose privacy has been invaded by private drone operators. A concern about invasion of privacy, in particular when it comes to private property, has long been an issue tied in gathering geographic information, whether it’s gathering imagery via satellite, airplanes, or drones.

To address some of these ethical and legal concerns, some drone operators marketing their services towards geographic data collection have a responsibility and ethics statement such as this one from Shyris Imaging which pledges responsible drone operation to safeguard against violating safety and privacy issues.  As it moves towards allowing commercial drones, the FAA released a document in September of 2013 entitled, “Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System (NAS) Roadmap.” In 2013 the FAA approved for first four companies to fly drones commercially in the United States.

Allowing commercial use of drones is fraught with ethical issues. I’m just getting used to the fact that Domino’s Pizza may, someday soon, use robots to deliver my pizza. Yes, this has already occurred in New Zealand and Australia. I don’t know about you, but I am skeptical about the efficiency of the practice, possibly delivering the pizza to my neighbor instead, and its heating system failing so it arrives cold.

Amazon raised a lot of eyebrows last year when it announced that it was planning to start delivering packages to consumers by automated drones. I’m skeptical of that as well. I can envision the drones colliding in mid-air; crashing into buildings; and creating havoc in aviation.

On an ethical level I fear that in addition to privacy issues these drones will take away lots of jobs; create more unemployment and under-employment; drive down wages; and generally move us one step further away from being a caring society.

Mechanization has its good points for sure but given that we all are inextricably linked to our electronic devices already with too many people using it to sacrifice person-to-person contact, I am afraid the use of drones for commercial purposes will further exacerbate the human contact that is so important in developing a sensitivity to what is right and was is wrong based on how our actions affect others. It’s easy to blame the drone for a missed delivery and it can’t answer back…at least not yet. It’s much more human to discuss the issue with the person who has the responsibility for deliveries and reach a resolution of the problem.

Above all else there needs to be ethical guidelines developed to set boundaries about the proper and improper use of drones. The question is who will do it? For comparison sake, there is a code of ethics for drone journalists that are viewed as a layer of additional ethical considerations atop the traditional professional and ethical expectations of a journalist in the 21st century. Drones can be used by drone journalists for aerial photography, although drones are by no means limited to that function. The ability to take photographs from the sky makes the drones a powerful tool in the hands of a journalist. But the vantage point also offers the chance for abuse, especially in terms of privacy and safety.

As with most technological advances, the laws have not kept up with the advanced use of drone technology. I imagine it will take a long time to develop ethical standards for the commercial use of drones, but start we must to protect societal interests and create an environment for responsible action.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on April 7, 2016. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: