The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

April 30, 2012

Other Views: Drones could dominate


From Scripps Howard News Service

— Unmanned aerial vehicles, AKA drones, are already more than a flight of fancy over American domestic airspace.

Although drones are best known for tracking and attacking terrorists overseas, big city police departments, university researchers and assorted federal agencies are already deploying the aircraft here.

The prospect of swarms of hovering, circling spies in the skies over neighborhoods and workplaces is daunting to privacy advocates, even though UAVs are as likely to check out snow melt and hurricane intensity as to target criminal gangs or smugglers on the border.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation recently shed a bit more light on domestic drones with a suit that forced the Federal Aviation Administration to release lists of all the entities, government and private, that have sought authority to operate them in the same airspace as piloted planes.

The FAA is still working on rules that would allow remote and computer-controlled UAVs to operate without interfering with general aviation.

Several privacy advocates are petitioning the FAA to address how nosy drones can be, but the agency is likely to stay focused on safety. Supreme Court rulings in the 1980s concerning manned aerial surveillance by police of private property said anything seen from “publicly navigable airspace” is fair game even without a warrant.

But today’s surveillance cameras, sensors and computer enhancement raise the threshold from what’s growing or buried in the backyard to the ability to not only peek through the bedroom window, but through the curtains and into the basement.

The 60-some entities identified by the FAA as flying drones thus far were mostly either public agencies or private companies engaged in designing and making the aircraft. But it’s easy enough to imagine, as the technology becomes cheaper, that private security firms, utilities and media firms will want eyes in the sky.

FAA rule makers will have enough headaches just figuring out how to manage all the extra air traffic drones will bring and deciding who will be allowed to fly a UAV, with what training, at what size and how far, let alone what they can see and record.

Scripps Howard News Service