It’s Getting Easier to Fly Drones in the U.S.

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Ben Miller’s drones are some of the latest bots to fly in American skies.

The manager for the drone program at the sheriff’s office in Mesa County, Colo., Miller uses his machines — small enough to fit in the back of an SUV — to track bad guys and rescue lost hikers.

“One of these days, someone will bring a lost child back to their parents” with the help of a drone, he said. “From a law enforcement perspective, that’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to improve public safety.”

Miller sees the drones as part of the future of law enforcement, and he’s not the only one.

The Federal Aviation Administration is making it easier to put drones in the air at home. At the moment, only public institutions — law enforcement, fire and emergency responders, public universities and of course, the military — are allowed to fly drones — known officially as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

But that will soon change. The FAA recently streamlined the application process to make it faster and easier for public institutions to get drone permits. It also aims to allow civilians and companies to put bots in the air by 2014, once the FAA figures out how to safely integrate drones into the domestic airspace.

UAVs have gained attention amid U.S. operations overseas, where drones have been used for surveillance and to kill suspected militants. But their increased use abroad has renewed focus on how drones might be used at home, and sparked the beginning of what’s likely to be a rigorous debate about privacy and surveillance.

Miller decided to look into drones a few years ago, after musing aloud with a colleague about what it would be like to have the same technology as the military. “We joked about it for a second, but then an hour later I thought, ‘Actually, there might be something to that,’” he said.

Miller started researching drones-for-hire. Most of the domestic drones, so far, are closer in size to model airplanes or little helicopters than their imposing, 27-foot Predator cousin.

Miller first acquired a prototype, the Draganflyer X6, from a Canadian company a little more than two years ago, he said. Only 33 inches long, the bot can only stay in the air for about 10 minutes, and flies no higher than 400 feet in the air. But that’s long enough to check for a “bad guy” on the roof, or one that might be hiding in the bushes — both recent missions the Draganflyer has flown.

He also recently picked up a Falcon, a larger drone that can be launched by hand — like throwing a paper airplane — and remain airborne for up to an hour.

Miller — who has made a few short films of the department’s drone use — has sent his UAVs on search-and-rescue operations, and to take aerial photos of traffic accidents, crime scenes and a fire at a church that officials suspected might have been arson.

“We’ve seen a lot of benefits,” he said. It’s also cheaper than renting a helicopter when he needs an aerial view. Miller estimates a helicopter pilot might charge $650 an hour to fly. The Draganflyer, which he was given to test for free by the manufacturer, costs about $3.50 an hour to charge the batteries.

Hoping to preempt privacy concerns, Miller has drafted a code of conduct for the drones, and says he operates them within the law. For example, he said, he wouldn’t fly the drone in an area that police wouldn’t otherwise enter without a warrant — such as someone’s backyard. “Let’s have a conversation about what the privacy expectations are,” he said. “I would not want my local police department to violate my personal protections.”

Who’s Flying These Things in the U.S.?

Many of the government’s domestic drone operations are known.

The Coast Guard and the Border Patrol use UAVs to scan the coastline and the land borders, and protect oil and gas pipelines, according to a January Congressional Research Service report. There are currently nine Predators patrolling the borders, according to a draft Department of Homeland Security audit cited in a recent Los Angeles Times article, which noted that the department has spent more than $250 million building up a domestic drone program over the past six years.

But it’s less clear how many other institutions are flying drones, and for what purpose.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which focuses on privacy and security, sued to obtain documents from the FAA that detail who has applied to operate drones. The FAA produced two lists in April that offered some insight. One document lists 12 drone manufacturers that have applied to test drones, and a second document lists 55 public institutions — including branches of the military, the FBI, and several police departments and universities — who have applied for certificates of authorization, known as COAs, to fly drones. (The EFF plotted those who’ve applied for COAs on a handy Google map, and says it’s expecting the FAA to release an additional 125 names soon.)

In part because of the current FAA restrictions, the civil market for drones in the U.S. is still small. The civil market value in the U.S. is only about $131 million in 2012, out of a total $2.53 billion spent by the U.S., said Philip Finnegan, the director of corporate analysis at the Teal Group, a defense-consulting agency. Its market forecast put the total amount spent worldwide on UAV production at $3.55 billion.

But the market is expected to expand in the next few years, especially as drone manufacturers seek new customers now that the U.S. military demand has ebbed in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Several drone manufacturers — including Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell and Raytheon — sit on the FAA’s rulemaking committee, helping the agency determine how to integrate drones into domestic airspace.

The drone industry is looking toward the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the country, most of which can’t currently afford to buy a helicopter or a plane, but might still be interested in an eye in the sky. Officials could use drones for search-and-rescue missions, to track suspects without engaging in a dangerous car chase, or for aerial surveillance of armed suspects.

“I see it as a very opportunistic market,” said Chris Miser, a retired Air Force captain who now builds drones for the civilian market, and has given one to Miller to test. “The main thing is educating law enforcement that they can actually afford them and use them.”

Who’s Watching the (Unmanned) Watchers?

Drone advocates, including Miser, say that the law treats surveillance drones the same way it would manned helicopters or planes, and argues that media focus on drone attacks overseas have led the public to harbor undue fears about UAVs at home.

“We’ve been flying helicopters for a long time now,” said Miser. “Nothing changes — it’s a camera, or eyes in the sky.”

“They’re right and they’re wrong,” said Ryan Calo, an incoming law professor at the University of Washington School of Law, who has taught at Stanford University on the questions surrounding privacy and robotics. “The law won’t treat a helicopter any different than the use of a drone, likely. But drone surveillance is so much more cost effective and efficient… The incentives for police officers to engage in surveillance is higher, and the obstacles are lower.”

Calo said that current U.S. privacy laws haven’t caught up to new technology. There’s currently no legal expectation of privacy for a person strolling down a street, for example. Should that change if the street is filmed 24 hours each day by a camera equipped with facial-recognition software?

“We don’t have good examples that are getting people riled up,” he said. “Drones are a good candidate that will make people focus in on this issue.”

In at least one town, it already has. The Seattle police department acquired a drone last year — a little remote-controlled helicopter with mounted cameras, to little fanfare. Then in April, the Seattle Times wrote about it, sparking concern among city officials.

Seattle City Council President Sally Clark took the discussion public. Clark said her main concern was that there be guidelines for how the drone’s surveillance footage can be used — and whether the community really needed a mechanical eye in the sky.

The police have since apologized for not keeping the city council informed. They’re working with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington to draw up proposed guidelines for how the drone, and the footage it collects, may be used. “It is important to note that the UAVs have not been deployed and will not be deployed until appropriate policies for use are developed and approved,” the police department said in a statement on its website.

Clark said she was looking forward to seeing the proposed guidelines, but was still wary of the drone. “There is something that’s troubling to me about the dehumanizing way in which we watch each other [now],” she said. “That is troubling for public safety.”

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