Drones are in. Drones are cool. To officials in many communities, drones are intriguing.
Drones bring a wide array of both practical and ethical questions, too. As more cities and towns explore the purchase and use of drones to enhance public safety, their place is no longer a quirky conversation topic but one that demands serious review.
Chicopee police have authorized use of a private drone twice in recent months, first to find a submerged car in the Connecticut River and then in the search for a missing 91-year-old man. The City Council is considering the purchase of a drone for its Police Department.
In Belchertown, the owners of the town’s public access TV station have a different idea. They are looking at the purchase of a drone (for about $1,100) to provide aerial views of certain community events.
Last year, use of a drone in Easthampton helped police and fire officials monitor the damage from a microburst along route 141 and Mount Tom.The benefits of drones seem indisputable, and their cost is affordable but their use also raises questions that are undeniable.
Some residents fear Big Brother and want to know who will operate the drones, and for what purposes. Concerns about intrusiveness and spying cannot be dismissed as simple paranoia. They are fair questions, and so are those of liability.
So are questions of law enforcement applications and the use of evidence that might be obtained from a drone.
The growing interest in drones among public safety officials behooves cities and towns to give their use careful consideration. With that, however, must first come a serious debate that leads to rules and regulations that will maximize their use for purposes of safety, without feeding the fears of residents who find it unsettling to see drones looking over their shoulders from the sky.
In most communities, drone use for local municipal needs is a new subject and uncharted legal and ethical territory. That does not mean the idea should be discarded, but it should be studied openly before cities and towns commit to their use.
Residents have a right to be protected in the best manner possible. They also have a right to privacy. How to balance those rights should be at the forefront of any municipal discussion on how to apply drone technology for the overall good.