Medina County Sheriff Tom Miller says he understands why some people in northeastern Ohio may be wary about having his department’s drone overhead.
“If I have a barbecue in my backyard, I certainly don’t need somebody droning over me to see what’s going on,” Miller said by telephone from the county of about 173,000. “But if my grandson’s missing, or my granddaughter, I would like to think there’s technology available that can help us search more quickly to locate them.”
The remote-controlled, unmanned aerial vehicles used for years by the U.S. against al-Qaeda fighters overseas are poised to become fixtures in everyday U.S. life as law-enforcement agencies, states and universities acquire them, and businesses eye potential uses. Their steady advance is forcing governments and citizens to grapple with the consequences and opportunities created by the culture of surveillance.
Even as the Federal Aviation Administration works to incorporate drones into U.S. airspace for civilian uses, and states such as Ohio plan to become leaders in their manufacture, lawmakers in Congress, states including Virginia and local governments are weighing limits to preserve privacy.
“Drones have the potential to be transformative technology,” Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law and a former director at the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society, said by telephone from Seattle. “There will be some people who will never get used to the idea of inscrutable flying robots watching, but I think for many, they’ll come to accept this technology.”
Congress has directed the FAA to develop policies and procedures to integrate unmanned aircraft by 2015. Until then, government entities must obtain the agency’s approval before flying drones, and there were 327 active permits through Feb. 12, the agency said.
In Ohio, applicants include the Medina sheriff’s office and the state Transportation Department, according to the response to a public records request from the Electronic Freedom Foundation. There are also universities such as Sinclair Community College in Dayton, which said it has one of the first commercial drone simulator labs in the U.S. and a program to certify students for employment.
The Buckeye State is creating an Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center and Test Complex near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton. The state is also banding together with Indiana in a joint application for one of the six U.S. sites the FAA will approve for drone research and testing, hoping to attract companies and jobs.
“If you’re building unmanned vehicles, that’s the vehicle of the future,” Governor John Kasich, a first-term Republican, told reporters Feb. 13 in Columbus. “No question about it, it could bring a lot of jobs to Ohio.”
Drones can be equipped with high-powered cameras and sensors, and unlike the larger military drones with weapons systems, unmanned vehicles for civil and commercial use can be about the size of model airplanes. They can help farmers monitor crops, news organizations cover events, and fire departments respond to disasters.
Paparazzi will use drones to get their celebrity photos, and other potential uses are studying weather and even flying over golf courses to see what fairways need to be watered, said Matt Waite, a professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who established the Drone Journalism Lab in November 2011.
“A lot of the things that people want to do with UAVs are things that they’ve always wanted to do but couldn’t because manned aircraft would just make it prohibitively expensive,” Waite said in a telephone interview.
The Ohio Transportation Department wants to use its $15,000 drone to map road and bridge projects instead of using a manned aircraft that costs as much as $500 an hour.
The agency’s drone is made by senseFly LLC, a unit of Paris-based Parrot SA. The Swinglet CAM weighs 1 pound (half a kilogram) with a wingspan of about 2.5 feet (80 centimeters), spokesman Steve Faulkner said by e-mail. The remote-controlled device, made of plastic foam, travels as fast as 22 miles (35 kilometers) an hour and has a battery life of 25 minutes, he said.
The Ohio transportation drone is grounded until the agency develops policies for using it and addressing privacy concerns, Faulkner said. It’s parked in a cubicle at the agency’s district offices in Toledo, he said.
Bills have been introduced in at least 18 states to limit or regulate drones, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The City Council of Charlottesville, Virginia, voted Feb. 5 for a two-year moratorium on the use of drones, and a day later both the state House of Delegates and Senate passed bills to delay the use of unmanned aircraft by law-enforcement and regulatory entities until 2015, except in emergencies.
Police should have to get a warrant in most cases before sending up a drone to “peep into our lives,” said Virginia Senator Donald McEachin, sponsor of the legislation and chairman of the Democratic caucus.
“The founders never imagined a robot that could sit above your home, take pictures, hear sounds, even detect smells and send them back to a home base,” McEachin said by telephone from Richmond.
Miller, the 63-year-old Medina County sheriff, said his department’s drone -- which looks like a helmet attached to four propellers on rods -- hasn’t been used for missions yet while deputies are trained to operate it. The vehicle will be used only for search-and-rescue efforts and never for surveillance, he said.
That’s not enough, because good intentions can lead to misuse of drones without laws governing them, said Amie Stepanovich, a lawyer at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit group in Washington that monitors technology and civil liberties.
Part of the challenge is that the word “drone” conjures images of killer robots and spying machines because of its military uses, said Kent Wingate, 62, who is chairman of the Aviation Technology Department at Sinclair Community College and a retired Air Force flight-test engineer. Used properly, the devices -- which he prefers to call unmanned aerial systems -- can be indispensable in peacetime, he said.
“They turn it into this bad connotation of this drone that’s going to spy on you, and it’s going to follow you around in your car and take pictures of you and take pictures of your family,” Wingate said. “It’s such a negative and wrongly portrayed to the public.”
The FAA estimates there may be about 10,000 active commercial drones in five years. Annual spending on unmanned aerial vehicles worldwide will almost double to $11.4 billion in the next decade, according to an April 2012 report by Teal Group Corp., a defense industry consultant based in Fairfax, Virginia. Major drone makers today include Northrop Grumman Corp., based in Falls Church, Virginia; General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., in Poway, California; and AeroVironment Inc., in Monrovia, California, according to Teal.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an Arlington, Virginia-based trade group, projects that more than 70,000 U.S. jobs will be created in the first three years of drone integration, with more than 100,000 jobs by 2025, Melanie Hinton, a spokeswoman, said by e-mail.
Trace Curry, a 24-year-old student from Dayton who has studied unmanned aerial systems at Sinclair college, said he’s confident he’ll be able to earn a good living.
“I see this as something that in 50, 60 years, my grandkids will be able to just walk outside and say, ‘Hey, there’s a UAS flying around,’” Curry said. “And to think that I would be someone who contributed to that, that’s really something that keeps me going.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at firstname.lastname@example.org