You’ve probably heard about the remotely-piloted drones used to take out terrorists over the past decade of war. Drones — technically called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) — are aerial vehicles made in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and functions. Controlled either by remote or control systems from the ground, drones are generally used to carry out tasks in which manned flight is considered to be risky: in search and rescue, weather analysis, and most famously (and controversially) in the military. What may alarm you is that drones could be lurking in your own back yard.
While most people associate drones with hunting terrorists and striking targets in Pakistan, drones are breaking into the domestic industry. Last year Congress ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to select six domestic sites to test the safety of drones, which can be as large as a jetliner or as small as 19 grams. Drones could potentially explode into a multi-billion dollar industry, being used for crop dusting, real estate advertising — you name it.
Last year a North Dakota court upheld the first-ever use of an unmanned drone assisting in an arrest — despite arguments of warrantless surveillance. The Homeland Security drone was used for surveillance during a 16-hour standoff over some unreturned cows that had wandered onto a man’s land. The drone was used to ensure the man didn’t leave the farm and that he was unarmed during the arrest raid. In another incident the FBI recently used surveillance drones to monitor a hostage standoff involving a 5-year-old boy and several bombs in Alabama (the boy was rescued).
While the United States had a virtual monopoly on drones a decade ago, more than 70 countries now have some type of drone, although only a handful own armed ones.
The United Kingdom has brought attention to problems with drones other than privacy: unreliability. Britain has lost 447 of its military drones in Iraq and Afghanistan due to crashing, breaking down, or simply having gone missing. The fact that these machines could so easily malfunction definitely poses a safety issue.
Protecting Your Privacy
States are increasingly using drones for things like wildfire containment and surveillance. Drone use in the United States, however, is gaining–and increasingly criticized. The concern with domestically-used drones is obviously your privacy. The American Civil Liberties Union advises that rules be put in place to ensure that Americans can enjoy the benefits of drone technology without the United States becoming a “surveillance society.” Congress has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to change airspace rules to make it easier for police to use domestic drones, but the law includes no privacy protections. Such protections could include usage limits (such as needing a warrant) or data retention limits (such as a rule requiring images to be wiped from storage if they contain no incriminating evidence). While states are using more drones in law enforcement operations, many states are pushing bills that would require law enforcement to minimize collection (and retention) of data not related to crime investigations.
Domestic-surveillance drones with mounted cameras could soon be used by your local police department. The Seattle police department was given an $82,000 federal grant for a drone program; unmanned planes could fly through neighborhoods as a means of conducting investigations more safely. As it turns out, the program doesn’t look like it’s going to be used. Many states — including Virginia, Florida, Maine, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon and Texas — are all poised with bills geared to regulate drone surveillance. These attempts to keep freedom and security balanced are popular, but still in the works.