United States: Flying High: The Human Rights Implications Of Investing In Drones

Last Updated: January 14 2015
Article by Melinda Kuritzky

Civilian application of drone technology has increased dramatically in recent years. The burgeoning civilian opportunities are a potential boon for investors, who view this emerging market as one that will expand long into the future, notwithstanding current and pending regulation of the industry. VCs are eager to get in on a piece of the action.

Notably, drones have historically been used primarily by the military, and this usage continues to be the primary driver of the market for drones and drone technology today. Up to 87 countries are currently using some form of drone in a military capacity. The United States leads the supply market for military drones, followed by Israel, which is the world's largest exporter of drones.

One sign of the changes to come occurred in December 2013, when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos revealed a program to create a delivery-by-drone service called Amazon "Prime Air." In August of 2014, Amazon urged the U.S. Department of Transportation, which currently bans outdoor testing or use of drones by commercial entities, to grant it an exemption that would allow it to develop the program.

While Amazon's announcement and efforts to develop its new program have been widely-publicized, other quieter civilian applications have been contemplated. Over the next few years, the FAA is "expected to license the use of tens of thousands of commercial drones for varied applications like crop monitoring, real estate sales, land use management, news reporting and search-and-rescue missions," according to ComputerWorld. Law enforcement usage, such as for traffic management and fugitive tracking, will also rise.

Astute investors should first recognize, however, the potential human rights related issues connected to drone use and technology before diving into the deep end of this market. In May 2014, Sustainalytics published a report, Drones & Human Rights: Emerging Issues for Investors, outlining the major risks investors face in the drone market. It lists three main categories of risks:

  • The increasing possibility of lethal autonomous weapons (LARs) in the form of drones;
  • The lethal use of drones outside of declared war zones; and
  • Concerns over privacy and information threats

LARs are fully autonomous robots that have the capacity to eliminate human (or other) targets without human input or review. The moral and legal consequences of this type of technology are troubling, as these "killer robots" would be unable to distinguish between combatants and civilians, or judge the proportionality of a military action. This is particularly true for a drone that may be flying thousands of feet above ground. For these reasons, LARs have become a major focus of human rights organizations. For example, a global coalition of NGOs called the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots emerged in 2012, and has rapidly picked up endorsements from scientists, faith leaders and policymakers. And the private sector is taking note: according to Human Rights Watch, in August of 2014, a Canadian company, Clearpath Robotics, supported the campaign in its pledge to abstain from the development and manufacture of LARs.

Another major risk for investors in the drone market is the thorny legal and moral issue of targeting killings in non-conflict zones. States that justify these drone strikes claim that they are effective counter-terrorism but their use still falls within a legal gray zone, as indicated in a March 2014 U.N. Human Rights Council report, which states there "no clear international consensus" on the legality of these strikes. Much attention has been focused on the U.S. use of drones in countries with which no formal war has been declared, such as Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. The social and psychological effect on communities affected by drone strikes is concerning and human rights organizations heavily critique the practice.

Finally, novel issues related to privacy arise in the use of drones, which are built for surveillance and data collection. This is particularly difficult to monitor in the realm of drones because of the public nature of air space. Civil society members, including NGOs and academics, have pushed for the formulation of rules to govern the privacy concerns that drones threaten in the U.S. In 2013, for example, Idaho enacted a law requiring warrants for the use of drones by law enforcement and established guidelines for use by private citizens. Today, a large majority of U.S. states have passed or are considering drone legislation in because of privacy concerns. E.U. Member States also impose varying levels of regulation on the civilian use of drones, and the European Commission has published a roadmap for long-term standardized regulation across Member States. A related risk stems from vulnerability of drones to hacking. Even if regulated and used "appropriately," data stored by drones could be at risk if not secured.

The risks outlined above can pose legal, reputational and economic risks for companies and investors. While the technology is certain to continue developing, regulatory regimes could potentially "affect returns on research and development in the medium and long term." Companies for which drone production and technology is a major focus will, of course, feel any effects more intensely than the large defense companies for which drone production is a small portion of their business.

Because of realized and potential violations of human rights that drone use can cause, companies that develop and produce such technologies, and their investors, are exposed to public criticism and reputational risk. For example, in November 2012, the NGO Reprieve called upon large insurers and pension funds to divest from firms producing combat drones.

Beyond civil society pressure, frameworks such as the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business Human Rights call on companies to operate with respect for human rights and to avoid complicity in human rights violations.

Sustainalytics makes three recommendations for limiting exposure to human rights and reputational risks:

  • Keep informed related to new risks and regulatory developments;
  • Develop a position on uses and users of drones, defining high-risk and low-risk types of both; and
  • Engage with producers of drones and drone technology to address the risk factors to which companies are exposed.

Investors should also conduct due diligence in determining whether drone producers are linked to human rights violations. This includes "efforts to identify the countries to which a company has sold drones, where they are being used, what steps a company is taking to assess the possible adverse human rights impacts of drone sales, and what policies they have in place to define responsible behaviour with respect to drone use in accordance with international law." The Sustainalytics report includes an annex that includes a list of questions that investors can pose to drone producers in efforts to monitor, mitigate, and address human rights risks involved in drone production.

Ultimately, drones have potential to provide unique and valuable services for military and civilian purposes alike. Awareness of the human rights implications, in addition to potential regulatory and reputational concerns, must come first.

To view Foley Hoag's Corporate Social Responsibility Blog please click here

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
In association with
Related Topics
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Related Articles
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions