Would you be upset if a drone snapped a pic of you at the beach?

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Invasion of the Drones

Drones are doing great things, but are they also threatening every American’s right to privacy?

This past January, two teenage surfers were saved from drowning—thanks to a drone. Lifeguards on a beach near Brisbane, Australia, were testing a new rescue drone when they were alerted to the plight of a pair of young surfers who’d gotten caught in rough water with 10-foot waves. The lifeguards steered the drone above the swimmers, which just over a minute later released a flotation device. The teens grabbed on and swam safely to shore.

About six months earlier, a major operation to combat a wildfire near Prescott, Arizona, came grinding to a halt—also because of a drone. Last July, firefighters were battling a fast-spreading blaze in the Prescott National Forest. Planes and helicopters were taking to the air to drop fire retardant and assist the crews when they were abruptly ordered to land. Why? A civilian was trying to get pictures of the fire with his drone and was endangering the whole operation. A drone “could easily get into the blades of a helicopter and take it down,” says Tyler Clare, a firefighter who was at the scene.

This past January, a drone helped save two teenage surfers from drowning. Lifeguards on a beach near Brisbane, Australia, were testing a new rescue drone. Just then, they heard that a pair of young surfers had gotten caught in rough water with 10-foot waves. The lifeguards steered the drone above the swimmers. Just over a minute later, the drone released a flotation device. The teens grabbed on and swam safely to shore.

About six months earlier, a drone interfered with a major operation to combat a wildfire near Prescott, Arizona. It was last July, and firefighters were battling a fast-spreading blaze in the Prescott National Forest. Planes and helicopters were taking to the air to drop fire retardant and help the crews. But they were abruptly ordered to land. Why? A civilian was trying to get pictures of the fire with his drone. That was putting the whole operation in danger. A drone “could easily get into the blades of a helicopter and take it down,” says Tyler Clare, a firefighter who was at the scene.

By the time firefighters were able to locate the drone’s operator and get their aircraft back into the air, an hour had passed. “That’s a long time as far as a wildfire goes,” Clare says.

As these two incidents make clear, the presence of drones in our skies is a complicated issue. Also known as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), a drone is a remote-controlled aircraft without passengers. Today, drone use in the U.S. is skyrocketing. According to the Consumer Technology Association, drone sales are expected to reach as high as $1.2 billion this year.

Drones have proved themselves invaluable in many ways, from studying hurricanes to delivering food and medicine in remote areas. But as ownership increases, drones threaten to clog the nation’s airways. They also can be used for questionable and even illegal purposes, including spying by police or civilians. 

How do we keep this helpful technology from also becoming a big headache—and violating our right to privacy? That is a question our government and society at large are only just beginning to wrestle with.

Firefighters were finally able to find the drone’s operator, then get their aircraft back into the air. But an hour had passed. “That’s a long time as far as a wildfire goes,” Clare says.

As these two incidents make clear, having drones in our skies is a complicated issue. A drone is a remote-controlled aircraft without passengers. It is also known as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Today, drone use in the U.S. is skyrocketing. Drone sales are expected to reach as high as $1.2 billion this year. That is according to the Consumer Technology Association.

Drones have proved themselves invaluable in many ways. For example, they help us study hurricanes and deliver food and medicine in remote areas. But as the number of drone owners increases, drones threaten to clog the nation’s airways. They also can be used for questionable and even illegal purposes, including spying by police or civilians.

How do we keep this helpful technology from also becoming a big headache? How can we prevent it from violating our right to privacy? Those are questions that our government and society are just beginning to wrestle with.

Invasion of Privacy

One of the top selling points of drones is their cameras, which can transmit stunning images from the sky. But the potential for their invading our privacy has a lot of people worried. For instance, there have been many reports of drones spying on sunbathing women. One Kentucky father is reported to have spotted a drone hovering over his daughters in their backyard and brought it down with his shotgun.

One of the top selling points of drones is their cameras. Those cameras can transmit stunning images from the sky. But the potential for them to invade our privacy has a lot of people worried. For instance, there have been many reports of drones spying on sunbathing women. One Kentucky father is reported to have spotted a drone hovering over his daughters in their backyard. He brought it down with his shotgun.

Drones are being used to study hurricanes and deliver medicine in remote areas.

The issue gets more serious when it comes to surveillance by authorities. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom from “unreasonable searches and seizures” of Americans and their property. But advocates for civil liberties warn that police could use drones to follow your car, or be able to gather evidence against you without a warrant. 

To date, some 20 states have passed laws regulating drone use. Most of them address privacy concerns by specifying how police can use drones.

The issue gets more serious when it comes to surveillance by authorities. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom from “unreasonable searches and seizures” of Americans and their property. But supporters of civil liberties warn that police could use drones to follow your car, or be able to gather evidence against you without a warrant.

To date, some 20 states have passed laws regulating drone use. Most of them deal with privacy concerns by spelling out how police can use drones.

Flying Robots at Work

Still, commercial drones are revolutionizing the workplace. Farmers are increasingly using them to monitor crops and animals, or to spray pesticides over large areas. Engineers have begun using them to examine complex infrastructure—for example, checking a dam for cracks—much faster and more safely than they could with the human eye.

Meanwhile, a number of companies, including Amazon, are developing drones that may one day be able to drop purchases on your doorstep. In New Zealand, Domino’s even demonstrated that it could use a drone to successfully deliver a still-hot pizza.

Still, commercial drones are revolutionizing the workplace. Farmers are increasingly using them to monitor crops and animals. They also use them to spray pesticides over large areas. Engineers have begun using drones to examine complex infrastructure, such as checking a dam for cracks. They can do this with drones much faster and more safely than they could with the human eye.

Meanwhile, a number of companies, including Amazon, are developing drones that may one day be able to drop purchases on your doorstep. In New Zealand, Domino’s even showed that it could use a drone to successfully deliver a still-hot pizza.

Drones to the Rescue

More dramatically, drones have become crucial in saving lives. In the African nation of Rwanda, a California company called Zipline is making it possible to transport blood and medicine to remote hospitals via drone. Whereas a trip by car over mountains and washed-out roads might take an entire day, a Zipline drone can complete a delivery from a distribution center in 30 minutes or less.

The U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees America’s national parks, has a fleet of more than 300 drones. Last year, the National Park Service began using drones for search-and-rescue operations in the Grand Canyon. These aircraft can operate in tight spots where it’s too dangerous for helicopters to go, and they can hunt for people in the dark, using thermal-sensing cameras to detect body heat. 

More dramatically, drones have become crucial in saving lives. In the African nation of Rwanda, a California company called Zipline is making it possible to transport blood and medicine to remote hospitals via drone. A trip by car over mountains and washed-out roads might take an entire day. But a Zipline drone can complete a delivery from a distribution center in 30 minutes or less.

The U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees America’s national parks, has a fleet of more than 300 drones. Last year, the National Park Service began using drones for search-and-rescue operations in the Grand Canyon. These aircraft can operate in tight spots where it is too dangerous for helicopters to go. They also can hunt for people in the dark by using thermal-sensing cameras to detect body heat.

Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters

Members of the Russian Emergencies Ministry test a rescue drone near Moscow.

“You can search all night long,” says Brad Koeckeritz, director of the Interior Department’s drone program. “People pop right out at you, and you can tell their precise location.”

And because drones are able to fly through smoke and detect hot spots, they’re also proving indispensable to firefighters. Last December, the Bel-Air neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, was ravaged by wildfires that forced 46,000 residents to be evacuated. The L.A. Fire Department was able to use two drones to help steer people through smoke-filled hills to safety. 

“You can search all night long,” says Brad Koeckeritz, director of the Interior Department’s drone program. “People pop right out at you, and you can tell their precise location.”

Drones are also proving indispensable to firefighters. That is because the machines can fly through smoke and detect hot spots. Last December, the Bel-Air neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, was ravaged by wildfires. The fires forced 46,000 residents to be evacuated. The L.A. Fire Department was able to use two drones to help steer people through smoke-filled hills to safety.

Monte Wolverton/PoliticalCartoons.com

Drones have become indispensable tools in emergencies, but hobbyists trying to see for themselves can keep firefighters from doing their jobs.

Accidents Waiting to Happen

Still, as the example of the troublesome drone in Prescott, Arizona, demonstrates, the machines can also be a hazard. When officials found the owner of that drone, they arrested him for endangering the lives of the firefighters who were battling the wildfire. 

Recreational drones flown by hobbyists are especially problematic near airports. Each month, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gets more than 100 reports of near-misses between jets and drones. Such a collision, or a drone getting sucked into a jet’s engine, would threaten people in the air and on the ground.

Civilian and military officials across the country are concerned that our airways will become progressively more crowded as drones get cheaper and more popular with the general public. 

“This is an accident waiting to happen,” U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, told a House committee last November. “We are going to lose an aircraft.”

Still, drones can also be a hazard. The situation with the drone in Prescott, Arizona, is an example of that. When officials found the owner of that drone, they arrested him for endangering the lives of the firefighters who were battling the wildfire.

Recreational drones flown by hobbyists are a special problem near airports. Each month, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gets more than 100 reports of near-misses between jets and drones. A collision or a drone getting sucked into a jet’s engine could threaten people in the air and on the ground.

Civilian and military officials across the country are concerned about drones getting cheaper and more popular with the general public. That is because it could make our airways more and more crowded.

“This is an accident waiting to happen,” U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, told a House committee last November. “We are going to lose an aircraft.”

Koen Van Weel/Epa/REX/Shutterstock.com

Police in the Netherlands are training eagles to catch troublesome drones.

Keeping Skies Safe

As experts see it, the government has an important question to answer: “How do we integrate the airspace and allow thousands of drones and manned aircraft to cohabitate?” says Dan Gettinger, of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York. 

The FAA, which issues regulations to keep the nation’s skies safe, has strict rules for drone users, says Juan Alonso, a professor of aeronautics at Stanford University in California who sits on the agency’s drone advisory board. The FAA requires a drone operator to be at least 16 years old. Drones can be flown only during the day, must be kept below 400 feet, and have to stay in the operator’s line of sight. Current regulations also prohibit flying drones over people. For now, that is preventing a lot of potential drone uses, such as delivering packages to your home. 

As experts see it, the government has an important question to answer: “How do we integrate the airspace and allow thousands of drones and manned aircraft to cohabitate?” says Dan Gettinger. He is with the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York.

The FAA issues regulations to keep the nation’s skies safe. It has strict rules for drone users, says Juan Alonso, a professor of aeronautics at Stanford University in California. Alonso sits on the agency’s drone advisory board. The FAA requires a drone operator to be at least 16 years old. Drones can be flown only during the day and must be kept below 400 feet. They also have to stay in the operator’s line of sight. Current regulations also ban flying drones over people. For now, that is preventing a lot of potential drone uses, such as delivering packages to your home.

How can drones and manned aircraft cohabitate?

These regulations are constantly under review. The FAA will soon announce a next step, Alonso says: requiring all drones to have a kind of electronic license plate so that they can be instantly recognized. “That will go a long way in identifying drones that are doing something useful and those that might do something nefarious,” Alonso explains.

These regulations are constantly under review. Alonso says the FAA will soon require all drones to have a kind of electronic license plate so that they can be instantly recognized. “That will go a long way in identifying drones that are doing something useful and those that might do something nefarious,” Alonso explains.

Dangerous Drones?

Bad guys using drones may sound like something out of a movie, but it’s a very real possibility, experts warn. In the wrong hands, drones could pose a serious risk to nuclear power plants, government buildings, and military bases. “Drones could carry explosives or surveillance equipment,” Alonso notes. “This could have an impact on national security.”

Indeed, U.S. military leaders recently testified before Congress about unauthorized drone flights over military bases. “These intrusions represent a growing threat to the safety and security of nuclear weapons and personnel,” said General John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command.

Bad guys using drones may sound like something out of a movie. But it is a very real possibility, experts warn. In the wrong hands, drones could pose a serious risk to nuclear power plants, government buildings, and military bases. “Drones could carry explosives or surveillance equipment,” Alonso notes. “This could have an impact on national security.”

Indeed, U.S. military leaders recently testified before Congress about unauthorized drone flights over military bases. “These intrusions represent a growing threat to the safety and security of nuclear weapons and personnel,” said General John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command.

Transforming the World

As drones become more sophisticated, their potential for positively shaping our lives is huge. Consider vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) technology. VTOL aircraft are able to lift and descend straight up or down and don’t require a large landing strip. While some manned aircraft can already do that, Alonso says, it’s only a matter of time before autonomous VTOL air taxis are transporting people more easily (and cheaply) than planes. 

Meanwhile, new technology that would allow Amazon and Domino’s to deliver packages and pizzas by drone is almost ready, experts say. 

The sticking point is regulation. “In a couple of years, we could see delivery drones operating in rural areas,” says Gettinger. For urban areas, the FAA will have to find a balance between safety and encouraging innovative use of drones. But that will happen, he believes. 

Still, as the use of commercial drones increases, Americans will have to grapple with the trade-offs of having them constantly hovering overhead. “Is the value of having a pizza delivered to your doorstep by drone worth the potential safety issues or the noise pollution?” Alonso asks.

For his part, Alonso can live with the potential downsides. “I am a convert,” he says of the promise of drones. “They are going to transform the world in ways we haven’t even thought of.” 

As drones become more sophisticated, their potential for positively shaping our lives is huge. Consider vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) technology. VTOL aircraft are able to lift and descend straight up or down. That means they do not need a large landing strip. Some manned aircraft can already do that. But, Alonso says, it is only a matter of time before self-operating VTOL air taxis are transporting people more easily and cheaply than planes.

Meanwhile, new technology that would allow Amazon and Domino’s to deliver packages and pizzas by drone is almost ready, experts say.

The sticking point is regulation. “In a couple of years, we could see delivery drones operating in rural areas,” says Gettinger. For urban areas, the FAA will have to find a balance between safety and encouraging innovative use of drones. But that will happen, he believes.

Still, as the use of commercial drones increases, Americans will have to wrestle with the trade-offs of having them constantly hovering overhead. “Is the value of having a pizza delivered to your doorstep by drone worth the potential safety issues or the noise pollution?” Alonso asks.

For his part, Alonso can live with the potential downsides. “I am a convert,” he says of the promise of drones. “They are going to transform the world in ways we haven’t even thought of.”

CORE QUESTION: How might drones threaten the civil liberties of Americans as protected by the Fourth Amendment?

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