States Look to Limit Domestic Drones Amid Privacy, Safety Concerns
By Sean Powers
Drones have been a controversial military weapon in the last decade. Just last week, President Obama set tighter standards and oversight over their use.
As debate over military drones continues, there is a growing interest in drones for non-military use by local governments, schools, businesses and individuals.
One group that is very interested in drone technology is at Urbana High School. In a classroom laboratory, more than a dozen students are building their own drone as part of an afterschool science club. It looks like a model airplane.
Freshman Fiona Munro shows off a camera she is trying to perfect that can be inserted inside the drone.
“We’ve got a little tiny piece of eraser underneath a rubber band, on top of the button that will take the pictures,” Munro said, holding up the camera as it automatically clicks away. “When it’s in the plane like this, it will just take pictures at a continuous rate of anything underneath it.”
Other students, like Freshman Jared Hatcher, are programming the drone’s GPS navigator.
“We’re not working with the camera itself,” Hatcher said. “However, the main thing we’ve been doing is making a program that will basically take the pictures the camera will eventually take, and put GPS coordinates into them based on where they would have been at that point in time.”
Matt Schroyer has been teaching these students how to build the drone. As part of a National Science Foundation grant, he developed the afterschool program to improve science education in the classroom.
Schroyer works on the program through the University of Illinois’ College of Education. He has been talking about drones all year at high schools in Urbana and Tuscola, and grade schools in Champaign. As schools look to beef up their science curricula, Schroyer said this technology is a really good entryway into engineering.
“We’re looking at taking what we’ve learned from this program and integrating it into the future,” Schroyer said. “We think there’s a lot of potential for aerial robots and other robots to be an important part of STEM education, especially the ‘e’ - the engineering part.”
Schroyer said civilian drones can be used by farmers surveying crop conditions, news reporters covering a story, and emergency personnel putting out a fire or looking for a missing person. But he said the first time most people are introduced to this technology is usually through a gruesome news report of a military drone attack overseas.
“I mean, here’s a copy of TIME’s Rise of the Drones,” Schroyer said, holding up a recent issue of the magazine. “They’re showing a predator reaper above a house in the United States. That couldn’t be further from what we’re working on in this classroom, and what we hope to accomplish.”
The Federal Aviation Administration estimates about 7,500 small commercial drones could be in the skies in the U.S. in about five years.
Right now, private businesses are not officially allowed to use them. The FAA only allows grants certificates for drones to public bodies, like government agencies, state universities and law enforcement.
Beyond that are hobby drones, which don’t need a certificate. But they face strict limits that keep them at low altitude, within the operator’s sight and away from urban areas and other aircraft.
The Champaign County Sheriff’s department has a drone, but Sheriff Dan Walsh does not want to use it until he sees what regulations come down the pipeline. He said he has no interest in using drones as weapons, but thinks they could be useful in tracking down stolen property, reconstructing accidents and crime scenes, and search and rescue missions.
“We had a case where we had an individual who disappeared with his vehicle,” Walsh recalled. “There were concerns about self-harm. Ultimately, it was located several miles from his home. I don’t remember whether it was between a one to two week period before it was found. Unfortunately, he had committed suicide. Well, if you can search something like that from the air very quickly, perhaps there could have been a different outcome. I don’t know.”
A proposal in the Illinois Senate would restrict the way Walsh could use a drone by requiring a search warrant before looking over private property. However, no warrant would be needed for flights over public property, like roads or highways. State Sen. Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet) is a co-sponsor of the measure.
“You just couldn’t fly up into somebody’s window and look in on a regular basis,” Rose said. “I think that this brave new world that we’re in, we really need to sit back and have a long, philosophical conversation about how we’re going to use these things when and where.”
Sen. Rose admits he is more concerned about the general public using drones to spy on people than he is about police officers. Still, Sheriff Walsh said requiring police to get search warrants before they can fly a drone could burn up an hour or two of time that could be spent investigating a case.
“Other people, I suspect, think we’re going to fly over looking for marijuana fields,” Walsh explained. “We truly have better things to do with our time than that believe it or not. And other people just think we’re going to spy on them. If we’re going to watch somebody overhead like that is not a very useful way of doing it.”
Congress is currently debating the use of drones within U.S. borders.
On the state level, 43 states have introduced bills and resolutions concerning unmanned aerial systems, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
That includes a resolution in Indiana to form a study committee on the issue. Its sponsor, State Sen. Jim Tomes (R-Wadesville) said while the devices can be useful for the military, he has privacy and safety concerns about their use by the public.
“This propensity sometimes of mankind to abuse technology,” Tomes said.“We’ve seen this happen with the internet, and people could hack into system. We can’t be fooling ourselves that there’s not a potential for abuse.”
The FAA is searching for six sites in the country to test out civilian and military drones, and recently asked states to apply to be considered. According to the FAA, Illinois and Indiana didn’t apply, but 24 other states did.
“We project that more than 100,000 new jobs will be created by 2025 in states that create a favorable regulatory environment for the industry,” said Mario Mairena, government relations manager with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Mairena said it will be an economic boon for states that make themselves available to companies looking to test drones.
“What’s happening is we fear is that companies are going to (leave),” he said. “We’re not only going to lose technology, we’re going to lose potentially jobs if we’re not able to test and be able to use these assets here. Companies are going to go abroad where they are already doing testing and the regulatory environment is not as constricting as it is here.”
The FAA has until 2015 to meet a federal mandate, allowing a greater use of drones in civilian airspace. But as their technology and availability expand, critics are expected to continue asking questions about the potential privacy and safety risks that could follow.