Coming soon to the skies above you — drones, drones and more drones. And all giving police and who knows who else the chance to peek into your backyard.
Legislation just signed by President Obama directs the Federal Aviation Administration to open the skies to remotely controlled drones within the next three years. It will begin in 88 days (from Feb 28th) with police and first responders having authority to fly smaller drones of less than 4.4 pounds at altitudes under 400 feet. Gradually, all drones are to be allowed by Sept. 30, 2015.
The use of drones had been restricted out of civilian aviation safety concerns created by a sky full of drones flown by untrained operators in the same space as aircraft. But that was overridden by successful lobbying of drone makers and customers who will reap the financial benefits for commercial purposes. “The market for drones is valued at $5.9 billion and is expected to double in the next decade,” the New York Times reported.
They can be used by real estate agents to snap aerial photos. But then, given costs and ease of use, what will stop a member of the paparazzi or any other prying photographer from using them to get more personal snapshots? The Times report said a $300 drone can be flown from an iPhone.
The planned expansion extends the militarization of law enforcement that has been going with the adaptation of military technology and strategies to civilian law enforcement. Police see several advantages to drones over other surveillance.
The pilotless craft cost less, are cheaper to operate and can remain airborne longer. They can be used as a crimefighting tool to patrol from the skies. Authorities can monitor traffic, search remote areas for missing persons or watch criminal suspects. But, then, police can watch a political rally, silently from 30,000 feet overhead.
But also alarming is the danger of escalating their use to include weapons. Drone builders are researching the use of nonlethal weapons such as tear gas, tasers and stun guns fired from a drone, and lethal weaponry can be an easy next step on the slippery slope.
The drones will add to the erosion of privacy that has come with the ubiquitous cameras and global positioning systems that can monitor our whereabouts.
The new law is concerned with safety in establishing guidelines and training requirements for operators. It will be up to governments and even the courts to enact constitutional safeguards on their use.