Civilian drone use on the horizon

Mike Wehner
Tech It Up!
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This September 2011 photo provided by Vanguard Defense Industries, shows a ShadowHawk drone with Montgomery County, Texas, SWAT team members. In a major step toward opening U.S. skies to thousands of unmanned drones, federal officials Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, solicited proposals to create six drone test sites around the country. The FAA has granted several hundred permits to universities, police departments and other government agencies to use small, low-flying drones. For example, the sheriff’s department in Montgomery County, Texas, has a 50-pound ShadowHawk helicopter drone intended to supplement its SWAT team. (AP Photo/Lance Bertolino, Vanguard Defense Industries)

When you hear the word "drone," you probably conjure up a winged, weaponized tool of war. But drones come in all shapes and sizes and while you're not likely to see a fully equipped, unmanned military aircraft flying overhead on your way to work, smaller surveillance-minded drones are beginning to pop up coast to coast.

Surveillance drones are essentially flying cameras, capable of taking position just about anywhere. These hovering robots are controlled from the ground, where the operator has a birds-eye view of whatever the drone happens to be looking at. This hardware has some amazing applications, such as for search and rescue or as an eye-in-the-sky when tracking down a fleeing criminal. But privacy advocates argue that it's far too easy for the government, corporations or even private individuals to throw a camera in the sky and monitor something they shouldn't be monitoring.

There are sketchy, but nonthreatening drone uses like Cody Oliver's mapping project, and there are controversial uses like Miami police trying to get eyes on a large Memorial Day party last year.

Still, why worry about drone use in the wrong hands? While top-end law enforcement models are probably out of your price range, you can get your hands on your own personal unmanned aerial vehicle for just a few hundred bucks. In fact, you can buy one from the Apple Store.

These smaller, lighter machines aren't capable of hunting down a fleeing criminal, but they will keep an eye on your neighbors. Featuring HD cameras and direct video feeds, the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 is an extremely powerful tool and easy to pilot. Its size and relatively quiet propellers help avoid a stir.

It's legal, and the FAA is currently deregulating civilian airspace to allow surveillance drones a greater physical presence in U.S. cities.

Despite this, many lawmakers are pushing for greater control over when and how surveillance drones are used. Rick Becker, a North Dakota legislator, proposed police agencies be required to obtain search warrants before deploying drones. According to the ACLU, 21 states are currently debating limits on drone use, though no hard limits have been put in place across the board.

Several law enforcement agencies are starting their own drone programs. There are active programs in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Texas and Washington, with more coming. Whether it be piloted by your local police agency, Homeland Security or even an anonymous neighbor, an unmanned robot could be humming in private airspace soon. Drones, it seems, are here to stay.