Drones and the Privatization of Public Air Space

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

The sky above us—historically defined as a common resource—is being redefined as it becomes saturated with new technologies, including especially drones. Over one million drones were sold in 2015 alone, and a hot debate is underway about who has the right to fly them and where.

The United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which regulates air space for public safety, recently allowed Amazon to privatize airspace in London and launch a drone delivery service. This commercialization of public air space forces us to ask, who owns the sky? This CAA ruling conflicts with the country’s established drone code, which keeps drones in the line of sight of their operators, and away from people, property, and aircraft.

These same rights do not seem to apply to the public. Journalist Bradley Garrett was barred from flying his drone in downtown London. It was then that he realized, “…while the grounding of personal drones might be a nuisance for hobbyists, it becomes a threat to democracy when journalists cannot use these tools to document and report on the activities of the elite.” In the United States, a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) was issued over the Standing Rock Sioux reservation after a drone recorded police abusing the protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Last year, a TFR was issued to prevent media from documenting a similar clash between police and protesters following the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri of teen-ager Michael Brown.

Is it in the public interest to create exclusive air lanes for Amazon but deny them to journalists, researchers, or activists?  The sky is a public resource; it should never be parceled out to the highest bidder or restricted in an effort to hide criminal activity.



Bradley L Garrett and Adam Fish, “Attack on the drones: the creeping privatisation of our urban airspace,” The Guardian, December 12, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/dec/12/attack-drones-privatisation-urban-airspace.

Nick Woolf and Samuel Gibbs, “Amazon to test drone delivery in partnership with UK government,” The Guardian, July 25, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jul/25/amazon-to-test-drone-delivery-uk-government.

“The Drone Code,” Civil Aviation Authority, http://dronesafe.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Dronecode.pdf.

Student Researcher: Brandon Durant (San Francisco State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)