TOPICS > Science

Rise of Domestic Drones Draws Questions About Privacy, Limiting Use

April 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The increased domestic use of small unmanned aerial devices known as drones have spurred enthusiasm from law enforcement officials to amateur photographers. But the evolving use of the technology has also triggered privacy concerns. Hari Sreenivasan reports on the debate surrounding acceptable uses of domestic drones.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: And we turn now to the subject of drones. Small unmanned aerial devices outfitted with surveillance equipment can be bought by virtually anyone and flown legally throughout the country.

As Hari Sreenivasan reports, the tiny aircraft are triggering a large debate over acceptable uses of domestic drones and privacy.

WOMAN: Oh.

WOMAN: Oh, my God.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On a Sunday afternoon, an hour’s drive outside the nation’s capital, the skies were filled with drones, not the lethal military killing machines we have heard about overseas, but unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, of all shapes and sizes that are legal and flown in the U.S. today.

It was a fly-in by 40 members of the D.C. Area Drone User Group. Washington resident Timothy Reuter is the group’s founder. It has nearly 300 members.

TIMOTHY REUTER, D.C. Area Drone User Group: We have a lot of people who are interested in photography. We have some longtime engineers, some who even work professionally on drone projects. You have longtime R.C. flyers.

And then you have people like myself who have no engineering background, have never done this before, but are excited by this as a new technology and just want to get started and find a community of people to work with.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Communities like this have popped up all over the country. These aircraft are not supposed to fly higher than 400 feet and must stay within the operator’s line of sight, and, like all UAVs, are not allowed to fly around major airports.

Most of the users here are strictly hobbyists, but Reuter says many of them have business plans. There’s only one problem.

TIMOTHY REUTER: The big restriction is you can’t charge money for what you’re doing. So, the FAA has deemed it safe enough for us to fly, but for some reason it’s not safe enough to charge money for that exact same flying.

And we’re doing some community service projects in the area, working with the local park to make promotional videos from the air of some of their trails. And that’s where we’re fitting in.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But the expanded use of UAVs to include commercial applications may be on the way in the United States.

In 2012, Congress passed a law requiring the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with a plan so that commercial and privately owned drones could be authorized to share the national airspace by 2015. Last fall, a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office said the majority of these drones would weigh less than 55 pounds and fly below 400 feet.

And the FAA’s latest aerospace forecast predicts that once the rules are in place, 7,500 small unmanned aerial systems will be in commercial use in five years. In fact, the agency is already permitting some to operate in U.S. skies. As of February, there were 327 active certificates that authorize drone flights by public entities. They have been used to monitor natural disasters such as flooding, or even hot spots in forest fires.

Universities are experimenting with drones to monitor crops or vineyards. And law enforcement agencies are using unmanned aerial vehicles in Border Patrol operations.

MICHAEL TOSCANO, Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International: Unmanned systems bring a tremendous potential to help human beings do those dirty, dangerous, difficult, and dull jobs.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Michael Toscano is president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a leading industry group for the unmanned systems and robotics community.

MICHAEL TOSCANO: These are commodities. They are an extension of the eyes, ears, hands of a human being. Well, that human being, that man or that woman, knows how to do their job better than anyone else. What you’re giving them is a tool that allows them to have better information to make smarter decisions.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In March, Toscano’s organization released a study looking at the potential economic impact of the unmanned aircraft industry. If the FAA integrates unmanned aerial systems into the airspace by 2015, the report projects 70,000 new jobs in the U.S. by 2018. By 2025, that number could grow to more than 100,000 jobs.

The industry group says other nations are already moving ahead with domestic unmanned aerial vehicles. In Spain, engineers equipped UAVs with 3-D imaging systems to create detailed maps of buildings and monuments. Costa Rican scientists have used drones to monitor one of the country’s volcanoes. In Nepal, small unmanned aircraft with video cameras are flown above national parks to combat animal poaching.

Protesters in Eastern Europe used a drone to get a bird’s-eye view of the situation on the ground. But here in the U.S., the storm clouds of legislative battles tied to privacy concerns are looming on the horizon. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, so far in 2013, 39 states that introduced 83 bills related to unmanned aerial systems. Most would limit their activity.

Just last week, Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter signed a bill restricting the use of drone aircraft by police and other public agencies. The potential widespread use of drones isn’t just spurring conversations at the state and local level. Just last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee convened a hearing titled “The Future of Drones in America.”

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy wasn’t just carrying paperwork when he walked into the hearing. The committee chair was holding a small drone aircraft, showing off the device that weighs a mere two pounds to ranking member Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, D-Vt.: Just in the last decade, technological advancements have revolutionized aviation to make this technology cheaper and more readily available.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Similar to state and local governments, chief among the committee’s concerns, privacy.

Amie Stepanovich was one of the witnesses who testified before the committee.

AMIE STEPANOVICH, Electronic Privacy Information Center: The privacy laws that do exist are very targeted to the approach that the United States has taken to privacy, and they don’t encompass the type of surveillance that drones are able to conduct.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Stepanovich works at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, a nonprofit research center in Washington, D.C.

AMIE STEPANOVICH: We want to see legislation that addresses aerial surveillance as a whole, that doesn’t necessarily look at what technology is available on the market now, but what could be available, what has been available, and addresses that in a way that’s not going to be out-of-date in a couple of years.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Last month, EPIC petitioned the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection to suspend its domestic drone surveillance program, citing a lack of privacy regulations. The group has also urged the FAA to address privacy and transparency concerns as the agency works toward opening the national airspace to UAVs.

AMIE STEPANOVICH: Transparency is incredibly important, because it’s something that can be done relatively easily. And actually right now, you have all manned pilots — manned aircraft are registered. And that registry is publicly accessible.

With drone aircraft, you don’t have the same repository. It’s very difficult to determine what’s out there, what surveillance equipment they carry. And we want to make sure that people are aware of what they’re subject to.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Neither privacy advocates nor UAV enthusiasts are confident that the FAA will meet its required deadlines, leaving the future of domestic drones up in the air.

RAY SUAREZ: How close are we to having drones peer in our windows? Get some perspective on our World page.