Putting Friendly Drones In Civilian Skies

In the summer of 2008, when wildfires raged through northern California, the Air Force, the Navy and NASA all offered to put Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) into the air to track the fires’ spread and help plan evacuations.

But in the end, instead of filling the sky with drones to brave the flames and relay data, the military and NASA were able to deploy only one UAV at a time.

UAVs – airborne vehicles that are directed remotely or through preprogrammed instructions, with no on-board pilots – have long been used in the military. Since their pilots can be thousands of miles away, UAVs can patrol hostile terrain without risking human lives. And because they don’t need to carry pilots, UAVs can be smaller than traditional aircraft – sometimes downright tiny – which allows them to navigate tighter spaces and stay aloft with less fuel than manned aircraft. Yet despite these benefits, their adoption for civilian use has been excruciatingly slow.

The primary obstacle has been UAVs’ still-limited capacity to detect and avoid other aircraft and objects. Remote pilots must rely on on-board sensors, which often give limited information and which can potentially malfunction. Because of this, the Federal Aviation Administration severely restricts the use of UAVs in domestic airspace. Public agencies wishing to operate UAVs inside the United States must apply for permission and are generally required to have ground observers or piloted aircraft in visual contact with a UAV whenever it is in space that is open to other air traffic.

Obviously, safety is the most important concern, but the costs of delaying the widespread use of UAVs are likely to be ultimately higher than the risks of using them.

Just this month, in Westchester County, N.Y., a month-long search for an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s, who had seemingly vanished without a trace, ended when her body was found in the woods less than half a mile from her home. The area had already been checked by police officers and dogs.

In a similar situation on the other side of the country, an 8-year-old autistic boy spent more than 24 hours missing in the San Bernardino National Forest after he ran away from his elementary school. That story has a happier ending. The boy was found unharmed, but not until after he had endured a night of hard rains, lightning and cold weather.

If police had had access to UAVs with thermal imaging equipment, there is a chance that they might have been able to locate these two individuals faster.

The possible uses for UAVs in civilian life are almost endless. They could watch over lonely spans of coastline and desert, where smugglers and human traffickers now move with relative freedom. They could monitor urban traffic and flash flooding. They could watch for unauthorized intrusions near reservoirs, power plants and other sensitive sites. They could patrol remote stretches of highway for stranded motorists who might be in distress.

Of course, for some, the idea of eyes in the sky brings anything but comfort. The same qualities that make UAVs well-suited to so many public safety missions also make them the stuff of privacy advocates’ nightmares. Recently, Texas law enforcement officers used a Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) to conduct an aerial sweep of a suspect’s property, leading to a wave of questions about how the technology might expand the reach of the police. A great deal of talk has also been devoted to speculation that the 2012 Olympic Games in London will be monitored by security drones.

For some, the thought of drones buzzing through stadiums may conjure images from dystopian fiction. It is important to remember, however, that our personal freedom is a product of our laws and attitudes regarding civil liberties, not our access or lack of access to technology. So long as drone-led searches are subject to the same restrictions as those carried out by human beings, the advent of UAVs in civilian life alone will not carry us into an age of Big Brother-like surveillance.

Flying drones will save lives and property. We ought to make the effort to get them into the air as soon as we can.

About Larry M. Elkin 534 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

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