3 “Drones Okay” Playground: Fun with Personal Drones

Learners consider the sociotechnical aspects of drones and how drones can restructure social experiences. Learners are prompted to design a playground, where drones can be used safely for fun and recreation, while other playground activities are also accommodated. The learning aims of this case study are to:

1. Introduce Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), commonly referred to as drones, as a rapidly evolving sociotechnical phenomenon

2. Develop skills for direct and indirect stakeholder analysis, especially considering bystanders

3. Explore how both technical and policy requirements might be developed to support multi-use stakeholder experiences.


Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), also referred to as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and commonly known as “drones,” are poised to have a substantial impact on human societies. In this case study, “drone” refers to all remote controlled, or autonomous, unmanned aircraft systems, regardless of size, capabilities, or purpose. Drones are commonly equipped with cameras and perhaps other sensors. Drones were first developed for military applications at the beginning of the 20th century, shortly after the development of manned aircraft. More recently, drone technology has begun to diffuse into governmental and non-governmental institutions—for example, police departments and movie studios—and into the hands of individuals for both personal and commercial applications.

Despite federal regulations that prohibits people from flying drones in Washington, D.C., on January 26, 2015 a small, inexpensive, personal drone penetrated security and crash landed on the White House grounds in Washington, DC. Responding to reporters’ questions the next day, President Obama was reported to have said: “We don’t really have any kind of regulatory structure at all for [drones].” It was further reported that he asked government agencies to make sure that drones “… aren’t dangerous and that they’re not violating people’s privacy.”

At the same time, state legislatures around the U.S. have also been concerned about the use of drones. For example, on December 1, 2015 the Georgia House of Representatives released a report, “House Study Report on the Use of Drones,” which began with this sentence: “Commonly referred to as drones or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), this technology is taking the nation by storm; however, regulations for their use have fallen behind.” Here are the 15 recommendations from the Georgia House of Representatives:

  1. Continue to monitor FAA Regulations with regards to registration requirements of hobbyist operators. The committee does not want to duplicate the process or hinder the industry.
  2. Form a commission made up of legislators, researchers, industry experts, and others deemed appropriate to help develop policy and encourage industry expansion within the state.
  3. Continue to encourage our universities and technical colleges to find ways to get involved by offering classes, certifications, or any other opportunities that may be deemed necessary.
  4. Encourage the state and its agencies to use drone technology in areas where it could provide a cost savings or improve safety.
  5. Look for opportunities to encourage venture capitalists to help with startups in Georgia.
  6. Protect citizen privacy by making it unlawful to video or photograph another person’s property without permission with limited exceptions to this.
  7. Prohibit weaponizing a drone.
  8. Make it a violation to fly in or around certain locations such as the capitol.
  9. Allow local governments to restrict the use of drones on their publicly owned land.
  10. Make it unlawful to fly around or to interfere with an emergency scene or to interfere with public safety personnel carrying out official duties.
  11. Require law enforcement to have a search warrant to use drones in areas to collect evidence where someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy.
  12. Require any videos or photos taken of private property by a government entity without evidentiary value to a specific case to be purged.
  13. Make it unlawful to take off from or to recover a drone from private or public property without permission.
  14. Prohibit use of drones for hunting and fishing or to use a drone to interfere with someone else that is hunting, fishing, or trapping.
  15. Prohibit the use of drones within so many feet of a public road without permission.

How might the President’s call for action be addressed? Consider the value of “safety.” One approach is to design drones with restricted technical capabilities, which promote safety. For example, a drone’s flight altitude might be limited by sensor and control chip, thereby generally keeping the drone separated from manned aircraft. This is a technical approach. Another approach is to develop regulations for where and how drones can be flown and to penalize operators who violate the regulations. For example, the Federal Aviation Administration prohibits the operation of unmanned aircraft systems within 30-mile radius of Ronald-Reagan Washington National Airport, which includes the District of Columbia. This is the policymakers’ approach. Often policy and technical design go hand in hand. As a simple example, a law (policy element) might be passed that prohibits the modification of altitude sensors and controllers (technical element) on drones.

Design Activity

Design Prompt

Suppose you have been contracted by a community organization to develop a plan for a “Drones Okay” playground. Your goal is to design such a playground. Consider the activities that the playground will support and not support. Develop both the technical requirements of the playground and the drones, and the rules for using the playground.

Design Setting

Before beginning with a design project—even a short classroom exercise—it can be helpful to consider the framing assumptions. That is, things about the project that are accepted as true. Often enough, a project’s framing assumptions are presupposed, implicit, or even somewhat obscure. A lot is unsaid in the above prompt; for example: Where is the playground located? Who in the neighborhood uses the playground? What activities take place in the playground? Is there a daily or seasonal rhythm to how the playground is used? And so on.

When seeking to move a design process forward a reasonable strategy is to identify as many questions about the design situation as possible and to answer those questions by making reasonable assumptions. In a similar vein, to fill in the gaps of a design prompt, it can be helpful to make reasonable clarifications. Sometimes, a designer will even re-write the design prompt with a “better” prompt, albeit, ideally, with a prompt that honors the spirit of the original. (Of course, in an actual project, with a budget of time and money, you would conduct empirical work—interviews with project sponsors and other stakeholders, careful observation of the playground, and so on—in order to identify the framing assumptions.)

In the prompt, “Drones Okay” is an element that needs clarification. A “Drones Okay Playground” seems to be different than a “Drones Only Playground.” That is, “Drones Okay” seems to mean that drones can be flown but other activities—sliding, swinging, ball throwing, messing around in the sandbox—might continue to take place. If so, the question might be: How might the playground be re-designed to absorb the activities of a drone?

Stepping back further, someone, for some reason, has decided that a “Drones okay” playground is a good idea. Or, least, someone has decided to investigate its merits. But, why?

Perhaps, a local political leader repeatedly observed teenagers flying drones at a park and has seen the potential for conflict arise with dog walkers, young children, and great blue herons who nest nearby in the spring. Rather than an outright ban on drone flying, which might be called for in other contexts such as, for example, a natural wilderness area, she has sought an accommodation.

Is an accommodation possible? After following a design process, perhaps the answer is “yes,” within limits, or perhaps, no acceptable approach is identified, and the best solution is to ban drones. In any case, it seems likely that all solutions will be contestable, with better or worse solutions rather than right or wrong solutions.

Another assumption is that playgrounds are “public spaces,” which, stepping back further, reflect multiple community traditions. When considered as such, we encounter deep questions concerning “norms,” that is, standards, expectations, and etiquette. Again, in a 3-week or longer project, identifying the particular norms related to how the playground is used would require empirical work.

In the face of multiple uses for outdoor, public playgrounds—and new uses at that— how might social harmony be achieved? That is, how might particular technical and policy elements be developed to minimize multiple conflicting uses?

On the one hand, stakeholders might hold the conviction that playgrounds should be protected from new technologies, which are likely to disrupt ball throwing, playing in the sandbox, swinging, and other traditional activities. Like mosquitoes, drones can be pesky, flying in erratic patterns, with rapid and unpredictable shifts of direction and height. With cameras and flashing lights, drones extend the reach of a pilot, providing easy means to violate social norms related to personal space and privacy. Drones, in short, are often rude because pilots can readily violate the presumed right for bystanders to be left alone. Exacerbating matters, in some communities, for example minority communities, surveillance might be a deep, longstanding concern, leading to anxiety about drones that have cameras.

On the other hand, stakeholders might hold the conviction that drones are fun and that playgrounds are an appropriate place for flying, at least within limits. Here, the value to be explicitly supported might be “transcendence”—creating a coherent bridge between older, accepted activities and new ones. Beyond the freedom to fly, society might also benefit when drones are de-mystified, and citizens develop experience-based intuitions about their benefits and harms. Widespread practical knowledge for drones will position society to move forward with better public deliberation about appropriate uses of drones and acceptance of new application areas.

In summary, as you work through the following design process, seek to clarify the framing assumptions, explore the convictions that people might hold for playgrounds, and seek to surface and examine the underlying values of these convictions. Then, use the faming assumptions, convictions, and values to inform and shape your design work.

Design Process

To guide your design process, follow these five steps in order. (Note that while these steps are ordered linearly, time allowing, you might go back-and-forth between steps iteratively and integratively.)

  1. Direct and indirect stakeholder analysis. Identify a list of stakeholders who might use the playground. Note how they would experience the playground or be affected by others’ activities. Then, select two direct and two indirect stakeholders for further analysis. Direct stakeholders are people who interact with drones in the playground, such as a child pilot, flying the drone in front of a swing set. Indirect stakeholders, often bystanders, are people who, while not operating or directly interacting with a drone, are nevertheless impacted by a drone. An example might be a grandparent whose attention is distracted by a buzzing drone while reading a newspaper and minding his grandchild.
  2. Value source analysis. For your direct and indirect stakeholders, consider their values. To do so, consider their likely interests in the playground and in drones. What views and underlying values do they hold? Some values to consider: fun, challenge, learning, privacy, safety, quietness. How are the various stakeholder values in tension—for example, “fun” v. “safety”? As a designer, what are your values? What values might you explicitly design for? One approach, for example, might be to create a playground in which stakeholders “respect” and “tolerate” each other.
  3. Envision the sociotechnical context. Draw a labeled sketch of the playground. What features would make up the playground and what changes, if any, would you make to accommodate drones? How might drones be used to interact with those features? Some things to consider: Wood chips, trees, swings, fences, signage, hidden passageways, lookout towers, and so on.
  4. Policy design. Write a policy statement, perhaps a list of rules, of allowable and prohibited rules at the playground. Your policy statement might begin: To have fun and fly safe you should…. Some things to consider: When would the playground be open? Who would be encouraged to play? What rules would regulate allowable and prohibited ways of flying?
  5. Technical design. What kind of drones would be allowable in the playground? What capabilities would they have? How would the technical capabilities support your policy design? What specific features related to the playground, if any, would the drones have? Write a set of technical requirements, in the form of: The [drone | playground] shall …

Your Presentation

Draw a sketch of your playground, showing your direct and indirect stakeholders. Bring forward some of your key technical requirements and the key aspects of your policy statement.

Prepare a 2-minute summary of your design.  Describe how your technical requirements and policy design work together to create a safe and fun playground.

Discussion Questions

  1. How, if at all, did your policy and technical design work together, with one supporting the other?
  2. How did the indirect stakeholders influence your design? Did you consider non-human, indirect stakeholders?
  3. What values motivated your design choices and how were they taken into account in your design?
  4. What Federal, State, or local laws and regulations might you need to take into account in your design?
  5. Do you see any connections between the design of the “Drones Okay” playground and the list of 15 recommendations from Georgia House Study Report on the Use of Drones? What elements of your technical and policy design might be appropriated or re-used to address some of the recommendations?

Instructor Notes

The case study is written with the “Drones Okay” Playground design prompt. Three other design prompts are given below. Select one of the design prompts and adjust the suggested design process as needed.

Reflective Writing Prompts and Exercises

  1. Write a value scenario. Write a 500-word value scenario that crystallizes your design work. Consider the direct and indirect stakeholders, their values, and how your design addresses possible value tension that emerge.
  2. Your design process. Write a 500-word reflective statement on your design process, focused on how your policy and technical design worked together or on how indirect stakeholders influenced your design.
  3. Envisioning future uses of drones. Consider this recommendation from the Georgia House Study Report on the Use of Drones:  Prohibit use of drones for hunting and fishing or to use a drone to interfere with someone else that is hunting, fishing, or trapping. How specifically might Georgia law be updated to address this recommendation?  Can you find examples from U.S. states that have passed laws that address this recommendation? Speculating, what might such laws tell us about U.S. society? Write a 500-word report.
  4. Geo-fences. Investigate implementation approaches for Geo-fences. How might Geo-fences be used to address some of the recommendations from the Georgia House Study Report on the Use of Drones? What might the benefits and costs of Geo-fences be?
  5. Character and focus of drone recommendations. Examine the list of 15 recommendations from the Georgia House Study Report on the Use of Drones.”  Propose 3–5 categories for organizing the recommendations and give rationale for your choices. Hint: Some recommendations appear to lead to regulations that will be constraining whereas others give a mix of boundaries and opportunities. Some recommendations are quite specific, others are quite broad and perhaps somewhat vague. Some recommendations concern human activities, some concern geography. Some recommendations are focused on how and where drones can be flown whereas others are concerned with drones’ capabilities. Some recommendations have implications for drones as devices whereas others seem to have implications for the information infrastructure that supports drone operations.

Additional design prompts

The suggested in-class design process – namely, (1) Direct and indirect stakeholder analysis, (2) Envision the sociotechnical context, (3) Policy design, and (4) Technical design – could be adapted to engage other design problems. Here are three additional design prompts:

  • Drone registration. In February 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration Administrator, Michael Huerta, was reported to have said “We need to bring the unmanned aircraft enthusiasts into the culture that has characterized aviation throughout its history – that is a culture of safety and a culture of responsibility.” Propose a registration system that would promote a culture of “safety,” “responsibility,” and “accountably.” How might drones, direct stakeholders, and indirect stakeholders interact with the registration system?
  • Drone airspace firewalls.  How might a property owner control her airspace from unwanted intrusions by drones. Using geo-fences as a technical approach, develop a policy recommendation and technical design approach. Some questions to consider: i) What kind of property would your policy recommendations cover? ii) How might exceptions be supported (e.g., a friend’s drone, a package delivery drone)? iii) What existing laws would your policy recommendations need to work within?
  • Drone identity. A homeowner unexpectedly encounters a drone at the window of her 26th floor apartment. Startled, she does not recognize the drone and has no idea why it is there. She can’t ask the drone and she can’t see anyone below who looks to be operating the drone. She wonders: Is this drone voyeurism?  How might policy design and technical design, if at all, address such situations? Some questions to consider: i) How might the drone be given an identity? ii) How might bystanders communicate with drones and their operators and, if they could, what would they say? iii) At what point do bystanders change from being indirect stakeholders to being direct stakeholders who seek to interact with a drones.



  1. dronelife collects stories and commentary on recent developments in drones. The Center for the Study of the Drone investigates the opportunities and challenges of unmanned technologies in both the military and civilian sphere. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International is a professional organization committed to fostering, developing, and promoting unmanned systems and robotic technologies.
  2. For a comprehensive introduction to drones, see Clarke (2014). Regulatory information on where and how drones can be flown can be found at the Federal Aviation Administration.
  3. For a brief history of military drones, see Cook (2007) and Shaw (2012). For an introduction to drone warfare and the law of armed conflict, see Vogel (2011). For an account of what its like to be a military drone operator, see Power (2013).
  4. For an account for personal drones using value sensitive design as an analytic tool, see Hendry (2017).

Background: Drones, Safety and Privacy

  1. For an account of the drone crash on the White House grounds, see Schmidt (2015) and Shear & Schmidt (2015). The White House released a presidential memorandum on drones, focused on economic competitiveness, privacy, safety, and civic rights.
  2. The Georgia House of Representatives report containing the 15 recommendations on the use of drones is available: House Study Committee on the Use of Drones.

Reflective Writing Prompts and Exercises

  1. NoFlyZone.org enables property owners to set up geo-fences to keep out drones. Newman (2015) provides an introduction to a vision where geo-fences are deployed by institutions and individuals to protect privacy rights.  Skyward is a startup that provides geo-fencing capabilities and related services for drone operations.
  2. Virginia was the first state to pass a drone law in April 2013. In 2015, 45 states considered over 150 bills related to drones. For an overview of state laws related to drones, see the National Conference of State Legislators.

Additional Design Prompts

  1. The Federal Aviation Administration has created a drone registration system. As of February 2016, the number of drones that been registered with the FAA exceeds the number of registered piloted aircraft (320,000). For early reporting on the the idea of a drone registration system, see Wingfield (2015). For information on the FAA process for creating the registration system, see FAA-2015-4378-0022.
  2. NoFlyZone.org provides a service where individual property owners can register drone no fly zones. Also, see Newman (2015).
  3. For an account of the woman who saw the drone outside her 26th floor apartment and what she did, see Bever (2015).


Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. (n.d.). Retrieved February 7, 2016, from http://www.auvsi.org/home

Bever, L. (2014, June 14). Seattle woman spots drone outside her 26th-floor apartment window, feels “violated.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/06/25/seattle-woman-spots-drone-outside-her-26th-floor-apartment-window-feels-violated/

Center for the Study of the Drone. (n.d.). Retrieved February 7, 2016, from http://dronecenter.bard.edu

Clarke, R. (2014). Understanding the drone epidemic. Computer Law & Security Review, 30(3), 230 – 246. http://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.clsr.2014.03.002

Cook, K. L. B. (2007). The Silent Force Multiplier: The History and Role of UAVs in Warfare. In 2007 IEEE Aerospace Conference (pp. 1–7). http://doi.org/10.1109/AERO.2007.352737

DRONELIFE. (n.d.). Retrieved February 7, 2016, from http://dronelife.com

Friedman, B., Kahn Jr., P. H., & Borning, A. (2006). Value sensitive design and information systems. In P. Zhang & D. Galletta (Eds.), Human-computer interaction in management information systems: Foundations (pp. 348–372). Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Jansen, B. (2016, February 8). FAA: Drone registration eclipses that of regular planes. USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2016/02/08/faa-drone-registration-eclipses-regular-planes/80002730/

Hendry, D. G. (2017). Personal drones and value sensitive design. In P. Otto and E. Gräf (Eds.), 3TH1CS: The Reinvention of Ethics in the Digital Age (pp. 58-66). Berlin, Germany: iRights.Media.

Hightower, D., Lumsden, E., Prince, B., & Watson, S. (n.d.). House Study Committee on the Use of Drones. Georgia House of Representatives. Retrieved from http://www.house.ga.gov/Documents/CommitteeDocuments/2015/Drones_FINAL_REPORT.pdf

Newman, L. H. (2015, February 10). Here’s How to Set Up a No-Fly Drone Zone Over Your House. Wired. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2015/02/10/noflyzone_org_lets_you_geofence_the_area_over_your_house_for_drones_to_avoid.html

Power, M. (2013). Confessions of a Drone Warrior. GQ. Retrieved from http://www.gq.com/story/drone-uav-pilot-assassination

Presidential Memoranda. (2015, February 15). Presidential Memorandum: Promoting Economic Competitiveness While Safeguarding Privacy, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in Domestic Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/15/presidential-memorandum-promoting-economic-competitiveness-while-safegua

Schmidt, M. S. (2015). Secret Service Arrests Man After Drone Flies Near White House. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/15/us/white-house-drone-secret-service.html?_r=0

Shaw, I. (2012). The Rise of the Predator Empire: Tracing the History of U.S. Drones. Retrieved from https://understandingempire.wordpress.com/2012/10/28/essay-the-historical-rise-of-the-predator-drone-2/

Shear, M., D., & Schmidt, M., S. (2015). White House Drone Crash Described as a U.S. Worker’s Drunken Lark. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/28/us/white-house-drone.html

Vogel, R. J. (2011). Drone Warfare and the Law of Armed Conflict. Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, 39(1).

Wingfield, N. (2015, October 19). Regulators Propose a Drone Registration System. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/20/business/regulators-propose-a-drone-registration-system.html


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Designing Tech Policy by David Hendry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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