Commercial and civilian drones are already here — even if they’re not supposed to be. Officially, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) forbids commercial operation of unmanned aircraft in U.S. national air space, but that hasn’t stopped a growing number of them from taking to the skies.
In January, the Los Angeles Police Department had to warn real estate agents not to use images of properties taken from a remotely controlled aircraft.
During the Occupy movement in New York City last November, reporter Tim Pool obtained a bird’s-eye view of police action in Zuccotti Park from a customized two-foot-wide drone flying overhead. The camera-equipped device streamed live video to the journalist’s smartphone, which relayed the footage to a public Internet stream.
And since 2011, News Corp.’s The Daily has had a news-gathering drone that it reportedly used to capture aerial footage of post-storm Alabama and flooding in South Dakota.
Unmanned aircrafts are trickling into use now, but the floodgates will open in 2015: That’s when the FAA will officially allow operation of commercial drones in U.S. air space. The agency predicts that 15,000 flying robots will be winging their way through the nation’s skies by 2020, and that number will double by 2030.
Once that swarm of pilotless aircraft is set loose, it’ll be up to state and local officials to sort out most of the rules for using these devices safely, securely and without trampling on privacy rights.
“Some kind of consistent policy would be a nice thing to have, but there isn’t an agency or arm of the [federal] government that’s in a position to enforce any privacy regulations,” said Matt Waite, a journalism professor at University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). “These kinds of laws generallytend to be delegated to the states.”
Within the year, the FAA must allow any “government public safety agency” to operate an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) weighing 25 pounds or less as long as certain conditions, such as daytime use, are met. Currently, few of the thousands of law enforcement agencies in the United States have access to air support, said Don Shinnamon, a public safety aviation consultant. “This technology has the potential to bring air support to many public safety agencies,” he said. “It means a higher level of public safety.”
In June, rumors spread about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) using drones to spy on cattle farmers in Nebraska and Iowa. “The problem is, the EPA doesn’t have any drones,” said Matt Waite, professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “They were doing it the same way they were always doing it, which is two dudes in a Cessna.”
The EPA uses manned aircraft to monitor for clean-water violations, such as dirty runoff or manure dumped into a stream. But drone use may not be all that far-fetched, Waite said. “The EPA’s enforcement division is too small for the job that they have to do — single enforcement officers being charged with impossibly large areas to cover — and they can’t just randomly check in on different problems or projects because they’re overworked,” he said. “UAVs might open that up a bit.”
“We have our share of crime,” said Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel of the Sheriff’s Office. “We have no airplanes and no helicopters, because of the expense involved. We’ve always had to defer to [other agencies] to hopefully help us in those situations where we needed an aircraft. Oftentimes, they’re out doing their own work.”
Purchased with the help of a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the county’s $260,000 UAV has yet to be deployed on a mission. But McDaniel has big plans for the device, which looks like a miniature helicopter. The UAV could give a rescue squad an aerial view of a hostage situation, he said, or in the case of an unknown chemical spill, it could read the placard on the container without sending a person into harm’s way. “We bought this for specific reasons,” McDaniel said. “It is for critical incidents where an air asset would be an appropriate way of providing information that we wouldn’t otherwise have.”
Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the nonprofit Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems, predicts that drones will begin to assume some of the more “dangerous, difficult and dull” missions performed by government agencies. For instance, when law enforcement officials are forced to call off a search because of unfavorable weather conditions, a UAV could continue surveillance through the storm. Or when officials need a nonintrusive way to count wildlife or inspectors want to check a damaged roof, a UAV is the ideal candidate. “With better situational awareness, you make better decisions,” Toscano said. “You’re more effective and efficient, and you’re safer.”