Drones of unknown origin flying over Colorado and Nebraska are worrying locals, The New York Times reported. Local law enforcement has been flooded with calls from citizens concerned about their safety and privacy. Legislature regarding drones is struggling to keep up.
According to the Times article, the drones flying over Colorado and Nebraska have wingspans of up to six feet and they make their flights over rural towns and open fields. They fly at night and nobody knows who owns them or what purpose they serve, if any. However, it’s all but certain that the drones have on-board cameras feeding video back to their pilots in real-time, raising privacy concerns. While drones have many practical uses in modern life, they’re also enjoying a legal gray area that some believe to be dangerous.
Drone Is Not a Four-Letter Word
Over the last 10 years, the private use of unmanned aerial vehicles like drones has skyrocketed.
“For most people, the word ‘drones’ conjures up the image of a lethal, missile-armed Predator or Reaper, like the drones deployed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and afterward,” said Professor Paul Rosenzweig, Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School. “But military drones are but a small fraction of the type of drones used in the United States and around the world today.”
Most commercially sold drones look and operate like tiny helicopters, featuring four sets of rotors. Professor Rosenzweig said that most drones are actually quite slow—civilian drones move at about 10 miles per hour. And aside from being handy for aerial photography, they have quite a few other uses as well.
“The Department of Homeland Security uses drones, for example, for Border Patrol security,” he said. “We use drones for emergency preparation and disaster response—before the next hurricane hits, drones will have planned evacuation routes and anticipated vulnerable locations.”
Farmers can use drones to keep an eye on crop growth, with better detail than satellite imagery, and even to crop dust; while environmentalists use them to track wildlife and to check on dams and levees. Professor Rosenzweig said that companies are even beginning to deliver food and drinks to customers via drone.
The Eye in the Sky
Like any technology, drones have great potential for positive and helpful application, but that potential also extends to less honorable use. Privacy rights, surveillance law, and other difficult subjects come to mind with the relatively inexpensive cost and ready availability of drones.
“In Kentucky, a man used his gun to shoot down an $1,800 drone that was hovering roughly 200 feet up over his neighbor’s house,” Professor Rosenzweig said. “He was arrested for criminal mischief and violating an FAA regulation against shooting down an aircraft. But the shooter said that the drone was invading his privacy and stalking him—laws that might apply when a drone with sensors hovers over your yard without your permission.”
On the other hand, some FAA regulations also impose strict limits on use of drone surveillance that impedes on the above-mentioned scientific purposes of wildlife tracking and conservation.
Additionally, police use of drones often enters a legal and ethical gray area. For example, Professor Rosenzweig said that a California law requires police to get a warrant from a judge before using a drone for surveillance. But what if the drone is only granted use to scope out a drug den, but in the process it happens to record an unrelated mugging or assault in progress? Should the evidence be admissible?
Even the ongoing story of the Great Plains drones is in uncharted territory, with the Times reporter noting that just during the Christmas holiday, the FAA proposed new regulations requiring drones to be identifiable. The technology is so new and so widely available that even laws over identification tags are up in the air.
Professor Paul Rosenzweig contributed to this article. Professor Rosenzweig is a Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School. He earned his J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School and then served as a law clerk to the Honorable R. Lanier Anderson III of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.