CBSNews.com, pilotless aircraft - known until now primarily for
their controversial role in American foreign policy - are now being
integrated into American life. The Federal Aviation Administration
expects there to be 7,500 commercial drones operating domestically by
Already, drones are being used by real estate agents to make videos of
high-end homes for sale and media outlets seeking relatively cheap
aerial shots. But this use of drones - known in the industry as unmanned
aerial vehicles or unmanned aircraft systems - is in a legal gray zone.
Asked if a real estate agent using a drone to generate video of a home
is breaking the law, a spokesperson for the FAA responded, "he could
For now, drones cannot currently be used for explicitly commercial
purposes. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI),
an advocacy and lobbying group for the industry, has pushed lawmakers to
allow farmers, Hollywood filmmakers, food-delivery companies (including
one Bay Area startup that wants to operate a drone "TacoCopter") and
others to legally use drones in their business. It forecasts that if the
industry is allowed to flourish, the drone industry will grow nearly 600
percent by 2025, to a value of $82 billion, creating 100,000 jobs along
"When I say the word drone, the first thing that probably comes to your
mind is something that is military, something that is hostile, something
that is weaponized," said AUVSI president and CEO Michael Toscano, who
strongly prefers the term "UAS," for unmanned aerial system. "Well,
these are the farthest from that."
He noted that some drones weigh no more than a pound and will be used
for precision agriculture and search and rescue missions, not dropping
"They are an extension of the eyes and ears and hands of a human being,
that allow them to do those dirty, dangerous, difficult and dull
missions out there," said Toscano.
Following lobbying from the drone industry, which Hearst Newspapers and
the Center for Responsive Politics reported contributed nearly $8
million over four years to members of the "drone caucus" in the House,
Congress last year required the FAA to issue regulations on integrating
drones into commercial airspace by September 2015. The FAA is currently
accepting applications for six drone test sites as it develops its
regulations and preparing to issue a rule regulating operation of small
drones. (Congress mandated integration of drones into U.S. airspace by
the 2015 deadline, but that doesn't necessarily mean full integration;
there is a good chance, especially in the wake of sequestration, that
the FAA will only clear small drones - under 55 pounds - for use by the
The agency is also working with experts at the Defense Department, NASA
and elsewhere to try to ensure that drones can be operated safely in
U.S. airspace by the 2015 deadline. It's no small task: Last September,
a Government Accountability Office report found that drones are not yet
able to avoid other aircraft and that there are "[c]oncerns about
national security, privacy and interference with Global Positioning
Still, there is no question that the technology has dramatically
improved - to the point that one company in South Africa plans to use
drones to deliver beer at an upcoming music festival. a British drone
company recently announced a system in which a drone can follow you (via
your mobile phone's signal) to capture your every movement on video. The
industry is in the middle of a gold rush - the former editor of Wired
magazine, Chris Anderson, left the publication to found a drone company,
one of hundreds that have sprung up in recent years - and it is
generating drones in all shapes and sizes. "The sky," Anderson said
recently (and a bit ominously), "could be dark with these things."
The latest drones can be small enough to fit in a
pocket or larger than a person; they can look like model airplanes,
miniature helicopters or something else entirely. (Some of the smallest
drones look like a hummingbird or even an insect.) They can cost as
little as a few hundred dollars or as much as a few hundred thousand;
some can be operated using touch screens that show their positioning and
real-time data collection.
While the government has not sanctioned the commercial use of drones,
the FAA did issue more than 1,000 waivers between 2009 and 2012 to
public entities (including law enforcement) to operate drones. They are
currently being used for border and port surveillance by the Department
of Homeland Security, for research by NASA, and by state universities in
Proponents point to a range of beneficial - and uncontroversial - uses
for drones. They can help in the search for a missing hiker more
efficiently than a human and monitor wildlife more cheaply than a
helicopter. They can help firefighters find for "hot spots" in a burning
building from above. They can cheaply transport drugs and medical
equipment into otherwise inaccessible areas around the world. Last week,
Canadian police announced they had used a drone to locate and treat a
man hurt in a car accident in a remote area - in what may have been the
first instance of a drone saving a life.
"Anytime you hear a search is called off due to bad weather, due to
darkness, or the ability to make sure that you don't injury anybody who
is searching for this person, that's where you'll see these systems,"
said Toscano of the drone lobby AUVSI.
Critics, meanwhile, are sounding the alarm over the potential for law
enforcement and regular people to use drones affixed with high-tech and
infrared cameras, scanners and other sensors to conduct surveillance
with relative ease. Cheap, easily accessible drones could mean "that
Americans will be subject to persistent aerial surveillance every time
they leave their homes," said Catherine Crump, a staff attorney with the
American Civil Liberties Union.
And it's not just surveillance that some civil liberties advocates are
worried about: In an interview with The Daily last year, Chief Deputy
Randy McDaniel of the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office - which owns a
$300,000 ShadowHawk drone - said there are "certain situations it might
be advantageous" to deploy drones affixed with tasers or chemical
But the FAA does not allow weapons on civilian aircraft, and even the
ACLU plays down the prospect of armed drones in U.S. skies. "I don't
think any serious people are proposing that law enforcement should be
able to use flying robots in the sky to tase people or throw beanbags at
them," said Crump. (McDaniel declined to comment for this story.)
Benjamin Miller, who directs the drone program at the Mesa County
Sheriff's Office in Colorado, said he sees no operational benefit to
armed drones. He also noted that in roughly 45 drone missions over four
years, he has not once used the department's drones for surveillance.
"It's not like we want to do surveillance now because we have unmanned
aircraft. We really don't have a need for that," said Miller. He added
that the drones are useful because they are the cheapest and most
effective way to do things like crime scene reconstruction and search
and rescue missions.
Asked how hard it is to actually operate a drone safely - particularly
amid heavy winds - Miller responded, "My children could fly the
equipment that we use." He said there "absolutely" should be "some
training" for anyone who wants to operate a drone but that it should
fall far short of the training needed for a pilot's license. Toscano
said there could be "some circumstances" where training is needed to
operate a drone, but others where it may not be. He also noted that
hobbyists can now legally fly model airplanes without a license.
The prospect of unfettered drone surveillance by law enforcement
officials is the rare issue that has united both the left and right.
Four states have already passed laws limiting the use of drones by law
enforcement, and drone privacy legislation has been proposed in 41
states. As lawmakers in Congress consider enacting federal legislation,
the House Judiciary Committee subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland
Security and Investigations is holding a hearing today called, "Eyes in
the Sky: The Domestic Use of Unmanned Aerial Systems."
"We need laws in states and hopefully in Congress because courts move
very slowly," said the ACLU's Crump.
Supreme Court & The 4th Amendment
The US Supreme Court has already held that individuals do not
generally have Fourth Amendment rights with respect to aerial
surveillance. Can the lower courts or State, county, city municipalities
pass legislation that would prohibit the use of UAV's for law
enforcement? The technology is so great, to deny the use of a UAV
is a crime. As with all search and seizures a warrant must
That's our 2 cents worth!
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