Hummingbird Drone

This drone, made by the company Aerovironment, is disguised as a hummingbird and can be used to track unsuspecting citizens. (Courtesy Aerovironment)

Shhhhh. Don't tell the feds, but people may be flying drones illegally in Connecticut. And apparently in a bunch of other places too.

By some estimates, we could be seeing as many as 30,000 drone aircraft flying over the U.S.A. within a decade, and that has civil rights activists and aircraft safety experts real nervous.

"Now you don't have to look up and wonder if you're being tracked by the government," says David McGuire, a staff attorney for the Connecticut chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, "but when these things are in full effect, you will."

How to make sure thousands of unmanned aircraft don't totally screw up our air traffic system is another huge concern. "If you're in a 747, do you really want to see a drone flying by?" asks Rick Connolly, one of the founders of the Remote Control Aerial Photography Association. He says his group was formed in part to educate people about where to fly drones safely.

Folks in what amounts to a drone airborne-underground aren't inclined to talk about how they're breaking the existing federal ban on the commercial use of unmanned aircraft. But they also aren't inclined to wait for the Federal Aviation Administration bureaucrats to finally come up with regulations to make operation of drones legal inside the U.S.

One company called SkyCamUsa, for example, is right now advertising on the web that it will use drones to take super-cool real estate videos to help you sell your Fairfield County estate. (Not surprisingly, the New York City-based company failed to return phone calls asking for comment.) A similar real estate photo operation was shut down in California not long ago.

Earlier this month down in South Carolina, an animal rights group had one of its remote-controlled camera drones shot down by hunters. The activists were trying to take pictures of a live pigeon shoot on a plantation. The dudes with the shotguns didn't seem to appreciate the attention.

Congress just passed legislation ordering the FAA to get off its ass and come up with a system for governing the flying of commercial drones by September 2015. The new law will also have the feds fast-tracking regulations to allow cops and other emergency rescue outfits to fly small (under 4.4 pounds) drones by this summer.

Drones can cost millions (for really big ones) or as little as $300 (for the real small jobs), and we're talking billions in potential sales, according to industry estimates.

The FAA has banned the commercial and law-enforcement use of drones inside the U.S. since 2007 unless you obtain a very-hard-to-get federal permit. The federal agency says only 295 of those special permits were still active at the end of last year.

Exactly who is being granted those permits is apparently being kept secret by the feds. The Electronic Freedom Foundation, a group worried about government surveillance issues, has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to force the FAA to disclose who's getting those drone permits and for what reasons.

You're also allowed to fly drones legally if you're a hobbyist and keep them flying lower than 400 feet.

McGuire and other civil rights activists believe tough restrictions on where and when drones can be used by police or anyone else are definitely needed.

"The FAA needs to step in and put some limitations on this before it gets out of hand," McGuire says. "[Drones] can be really small, they can do things you can't do with a helicopter, they can go right up to a window and peer in."

Ben Gielow, general counsel for the drone trade group Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, insists that "Some of those fears are a little bit misfounded." He argues law enforcement use of drones would be limited by previousU.S. Supreme Courtdecisions.

Gielow points out that the Supremes have already ruled cops need to get a search warrant in order to use stuff like thermal imaging sensors (which can detect the heat signature from the intense grow lamps used by hydroponic pot gardeners) or listening devices.

McGuire isn't convinced. He believes that a vast increase in the use of drone technology "is threatening to eat away at our privacy."

Post Your Comment Below