Thousands of non-military
UAVs under development
Drones like this could be buzzing the skies over your home in just a few years.
WHILE THE MILITARY use of unmanned aerial vehicles – also known as drones – continues to make controversial headlines, a quiet revolution is taking place in their civilian use.
It is an absolute certainty that the skies above modern metropolises and the surrounding countryside will soon be buzzing with UAVs.
They are already in limited use in the U.S. as regulators develop rules for their deployment. Their use is much further advanced in Europe, where each country is free to decide whether – and how – to regulate drones.
Their pending ascent to atmospheric heights is concerning civil liberties groups, who are calling for privacy protections and rules on collecting and keeping personal data.
ONE DOES NOT need to look far to find out how UAVs are already in use in the U.S. by commercial and government entities.
PC Magazine details their current deployment in its Aug. 22 article Beyond Warfare: 12 Non-Lethal Uses For Drones.
The story in PC Magazine about how civilian UAVs are currently being deployed. Click image to enlarge.
“[E]nterprising entrepreneurs of all stripes have realized that drones can be put to more uses than just spying on (and killing) your fellow citizens,” report Mark Hachman and Chloe Albanesius.
“They’ve been used for everything, including making TV commercials, agriculture, and more.”
The “more” includes the mundane and the malevolent: photographing music festivals; scaring geese; delivering pizza; whale watching; delivering medicine; inspecting pipelines and oil rigs; precision agriculture; and shooting commercials.
One item in the list is not so innocent: law enforcement:
“The Seattle Police Department plans on using the Dragonflyer drone as an eye in the sky, according to KOMO News. The machine’s thermal imaging technology would help during hostage situations, search and rescue operations, bomb threats and when officers need to pursue an armed criminal, police say.”
While the use of UAVs is still in its infancy, it will not stay that way for long. This is made clear in the Nov. 1 report in The Washington Post headlined As drones evolve from military to civilian uses, venture capitalists move in
“Commercial drones will soon populate U.S. airspace, and venture capitalists … are placing their bets,” reports Olga Kharif.
“Venture investors in the United States poured $40.9 million into drone-related start-ups in the first nine months of this year, more than double the amount for all of 2012,” the report says.
“Drones are moving from the military, where they’ve been used to spy on and kill suspected terrorists, to a range of civilian activities.”
Anticipating this, Congress has directed the Federal Aviation Administration to develop a plan to integrate drones into U.S. airspace by 2015 and to move faster on standards for drones weighing less than 55 pounds, according to the Post.
The Europeans are less concerned about drones, according to this story in The New York Times. Click image to enlarge.
“Sales of civilian unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, will reach $8.2 billion within the decade, up from nothing today, according to Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis at researcher Teal Group, which tracks aerospace and defense.”
That would be a phenomenal rate of growth, but it may be eclipsed by what is already happening in Europe, according to the Nov. 23 story in The New York Times headlined Europe at Ease With Eyes in the Sky
Nicola Clark reports:
“[N]early 1,000 unmanned vehicles are currently authorized to fly commercially in and around a dozen European countries.
“They are led by Britain, France and Germany, which have also provided funding for research and have, as in the case of Austria … made military facilities available to companies for flight testing.”
Concerns have arisen in Europe not about privacy but about safety.
“The rush to develop the technology, however, has also raised safety concerns, particularly in light of some recent, well-publicized accidents. Last spring, a U.A.V. being used to film parts of an episode of the British television show “The X Factor” lost control while flying over central London and tumbled into the Thames.”
According to The Times, Europeans seem less concerned about the potentially enormous impacts on personal privacy.
Thousands of UAVs constantly overhead in major cities could be used by law enforcement or perhaps unscrupulous operators to gather unimaginable amounts of sensitive personal data.
The alarm was raised by the American Civil Liberties Union in a Nov. 7 news release on government rule making about drones.
In FAA Addresses Privacy in Domestic Drone Testing Rules, Leaves Out Specifics the ACLU said:
The ACLU sounded the alarm about privacy in this press release on Nov. 7. Click image to enlarge.
“The Federal Aviation Administration today announced its rules for the testing of domestic drones in six areas around the country.
“The rules say that the state or local agencies overseeing the test sites must have publicly available plans for privacy, data use, and data retention, and that privacy practices must be annually reviewed and open to public comments. However, the FAA did not specify what those privacy practices should be.”
This is a major oversight.
Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, had this reaction:
“The government must address privacy as drone use expands. Requiring public disclosures of data use and retention policies, as well as mandating audits, are needed and welcome safeguards.”
However, Calabrese also called for “concrete restrictions on how data from drones can be used and how long it can be stored.
“Congress must also weigh in on areas outside of the FAA’s authority, such as use by law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security, which have the ability to use drones for invasive surveillance that must be kept in check.”
If you think the NSA spying on electronic communications like email and telephone calls is bad, there might be a much bigger, less welcome surprise waiting for everyone as drones get deployed by the thousands over our homes and cities.
It will be too late once the fleet is airborne. The time for real oversight is now, while it is still in the developmental stages. It won’t be a moment too soon.
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