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SALT LAKE CITY — Hobbyists, including some in Utah, are getting their hands on new models of unmanned aircraft capable of carrying cameras and other sensors. The trend raises new concerns over personal privacy.
Drones have defined America's recent foreign wars, but bringing that technology home to roost has proved challenging. The idea of Predator drones stalking domestic skies recently prompted officials in a Colorado town to propose the nation's first drone hunting license.
President Barack Obama defended the foreign use of military drones in a May 2013 foreign policy speech.
"This new technology raises profound questions about who is targeted and why, about civilian casualties and the risk of creating new enemies, about the legality of such strikes under U.S. and international law."
This week, the president clarified the government's drone efforts in a speech before the U.N. General Assembly.
"We have limited the use of drones so they only target those who pose a continuing imminent threat to the United States, where capture is not feasible and there's a near certainty of no civilian casualties," he said.
But the integration of unmanned aircraft into U.S. airspace — already crowded with commercial, military and general aviation — is a tough topic for the Obama administration. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has stated drones could be used to kill American citizens in "extraordinary circumstances."
Advocates for the use of unmanned vehicles in American skies tend to shudder at the word drone. It is seen as stained by military and CIA use in foreign missile strikes. Instead, they prefer technical terms.
Unmanned aerial system (UAS) is the phrase currently in favor with the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA is in the process of selecting six test sites for unmanned aerial systems. The agency has so far received 25 applications from 24 states, including one from Utah. The dean of Utah Valley University's College of Aviation and Public Services, Wayne Dornan, is spearheading the state's bid.
"We have every Utah academic institution that has either a UAS research component or a UAS program involved in this alliance," Dornan said. That includes Utah State, Weber State, Utah Valley and Brigham Young University, along with the University of Utah. "Plus we also have a lot of private industry involved."
On Monday, Dornan traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby on behalf of Utah's application.
"We're basically faced with a tsunami of this industry waiting for the FAA to say, 'Okay, we're going to let you fly your UASs into our national air space system.' And once they do that, we won't recognize the face of aviation."
We're basically faced with a tsunami of this industry waiting for the FAA to say, 'Okay, we're going to let you fly your UASs into our national air space system.' And once they do that, we won't recognize the face of aviation.
–Wayne Dornan, Dean of Utah Valley University's College of Aviation and Public Services
The FAA is expected to decide where it will locate those test sites by the end of December. Testers will ultimately help guide policy-makers as they seek to balance public safety and privacy concerns against the potential benefits.
One of the most significant challenges involves setting rules for the personal use of drones. Technological advances have made basic unmanned aerial systems available today for less than $1,000. Some models include sophisticated stabilization logic, making them easy to control for beginners. Others can follow GPS waypoints, land autonomously or return to a pre-determined point if the connection with a controller is lost.
Operators of these systems sometimes equip them with radios that transmit a live video feed to specialized goggles or monitors, allowing the aircraft to fly beyond the operator's field of view.
Under existing rules, hobbyists can fly this new class of aircraft in much the same manner as traditional RC planes and helicopters.
"Someone right now who wants to go to a hobby shop and buy a recreation UAS or unmanned helicopter, as long as they're not using it for a commercial use, then they don't have to get permission from the FAA," Dornan said.
Dornan believes that should change, though. He contends many hobby users are probably violating federal rules without realizing it.
"They had a piece on the news where this realtor was using his recreational vehicle, which had a camera on it, but he was going around taking shots of places that he was going to sell. There's no gray line there. He's crossed over from recreational use to commercial use."
As it stands, UAS operators hoping to fly their aircraft into controlled airspace or for commercial purposes have to apply for an FAA Certificate of Authorization. In Dornan's eyes, COAs are difficult to obtain and narrow in scope.
For now, you're unlikely to see handcuffs slapped on your neighborhood RC enthusiast unless he or she does something clearly in violation of the law. University of Utah law professor Randy Dryer said that could involve sending an unmanned aircraft into someone's personal space.
"There's a concept in the law that if you unreasonably interfere with the use and enjoyment of someone's private property, you can create a nuisance." Dryer said. "The more likely potential problem would be a trespass, where someone is physically trespassing on someone's property by a drone. That would depend on the facts: how low they're flying, how intrusive they are."
Even more concerning to Dryer is the potential deployment of drone technology by government agencies, particularly law enforcement.
"Do they need a search warrant before they can surveil someone? Then there's the additional issue of whether drones could be used with lethal force," Dryer said. "In other words, weapons could be mounted on drones: rubber bullets, things of that nature, crowd control, riot control."
While the public might picture a Predator drone doing those jobs, police wouldn't need such a sophisticated machine. Small, lightweight aircraft already available to the general public can carry high-definition cameras or infra-red sensors. Dryer supposes a future where paparazzi attempt to use that capability to peep on celebrities.
The presence of a drone is not always known because they are smaller. Many of them are virtually noiseless. It presents some different challenges for the privacy issues and most of the privacy laws relate to things like use of telephoto lenses.
–Randy Dryer, University of Utah law professor
"The presence of a drone is not always known because they are smaller. Many of them are virtually noiseless. It presents some different challenges for the privacy issues and most of the privacy laws relate to things like use of telephoto lenses."
Those concerns also have caught the attention of lawmakers unwilling to wait through the FAA's rule-making process.
The American Civil Liberties Union is tracking drone law proposals state by state. Utah has not to this point enacted its own drone law but Dryer thinks that it might just be a matter of time.
"I think we're going to see a great battle between the federal government and various states. Obviously there are those in the FAA and other, perhaps even the Department of Justice that would prefer uniform laws. But the states are going to jealously guard their ability to control state law enforcement."
In the meantime, more and more lay people are spending their free time flying the commercially-available UASs. Youtube is replete with videos shot by amateur airborne movie-makers. Some mount GoPro cameras on wing-shaped foam planes. Others use multi-rotor helicopters from vendors like Horizon Hobby and DJI.
Adrenaline RC Hobbies is one of the few Utah shops selling the four, six or eight-bladed helicopters. Adrenaline manager Jonathan McBride admits he regularly runs into people who question why general public needs access to such technology.
"Most people are pretty inquisitive about it. They want to know a little bit about it, all the sudden the wheels you can see turning in their heads on how they could use it. Next question, 'how much does it cost.' " The answer to that question is changing almost by the day. "It's come to an affordable price that everybody can manage buying them without having to sell off their house, like they were years ago."
McBride sees multi-rotor aircraft not just as a fun diversion, but also a serious tool. He's passionate about speaking with customers, making sure they understand the issues involved.
"We kind of put you through an interview. We check to see where you're at. We don't want to sell you a product that would be number one, dangerous to both you and other people, number two that you cannot seem to control."
Early adopters candidly admit they're afraid the government will try to take UASs out of the public's hands. McBride doesn't think that will happen. However, he realizes hobbyists face a struggle in changing people's perceptions about drones.
"There's probably going to be some litigation, some kind of governing rules for these things. Because as more become available, more become distributed and more people are purchasing them, the harder we have to work as a hobby shop to get people to still stay within the RC guidelines."