Before long, drones will be flying across the nation’s skies, part of the way companies do business every day.
These remotely piloted vehicles aren’t the weaponized ones that have long been tools of the military. Instead, they will perform hundreds of civilian jobs, including traffic monitoring, aerial surveying and oil-pipeline inspections.
American companies have long clamored to use drones, which each year become smaller and smarter. But while the Federal Aviation Administration has given a limited go-ahead to the police and other public-sector agencies to use drones, almost all commercial use has been banned.
That will change in 2015, the year the FAA must come up with rules to integrate drones safely into American skies.
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After that, farmers, will be able to buy or rent drones to monitor crop conditions. Real-estate agents will be able to offer aerial tours of their listings, using drone cameras to capture shots from angles seldom seen. Engineers may use them to inspect bridges and highways.
But before all these drones fly their way into the nation’s business world, some legislators and civil-liberties organizations
are urging strict limits on their use.
With their sophisticated cameras and software, the drones are game changers in the world of surveillance, said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union.
In the past, the substantial cost of traditional, piloted aircraft has imposed a natural limit on the use of aerial surveillance. But drones, which are far cheaper, could profoundly change the character of public life, Stanley said.
The ACLU wants to prevent government agencies from using drones for “pervasive, suspicionless mass surveillance,” he said.
Even if such surveillance is forbidden in the future, he said, “there’s real potential for the government turning to the private sector to do what it is banned from doing itself.”
“It’s part of a larger question — whether people want to allow the government to track, collect and store data, and perhaps rewind the tape on anyone’s life, finding out in great detail what individuals have been up to should they for any reason fall into the spotlight of government attention,” Stanley said.
Commercial drones could also become the newest tool for companies seeking to collect consumer data, said Parker Higgins, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights group.
“We carry around devices that broadcast our identity to anyone who’s interested in finding it,” he said. “Drones will be another way for companies to collect endless streams of data about individuals.”
Legislatures in several states are drafting laws to limit the use of drones. Virginia has placed a two-year moratorium on drone use by law enforcement, except in emergencies, to give the Legislature time to set up legal protections.
Local groups have emerged in opposition to government drones, and the advent of commercial drones could lead to more.
In Deer Trail, Colo., citizens will vote this fall on an ordinance that would grant people licenses to shoot down drones. (The ordinance is largely symbolic, as the FAA has asserted that taking potshots at unmanned aircraft would be illegal.)
Commercial-drone trials are under way in Canada. In Edmonton, Alberta, Stantec, a consulting company that uses aerial photography in its design and mapping business, bought a drone made by senseFly and has been training with it. Stantec is seeking certification and licensing for commercial use from the Canadian government.
Gavin Schrock, a professional surveyor and associate editor of Professional Surveyor magazine, said he thinks surveyors will be among the first to add drones to their tool kits.
Aerial systems are perfect for surveying locations like open-pit mines, he said. A small drone can fly over a pit, shuttling back and forth in overlapping rows, taking pictures that can be stitched together and converted into a three-dimensional model that is accurate to within a few inches.
Such a system is safer than having a surveyor walk around the pit with traditional tools. “I hate doing that,” Schrock said. “It’s dangerous.”
Trimble, a company in Sunnyvale, Calif., that sells mapping and other equipment, introduced in June a 5.5-pound drone called the UX5, said Rob Miller, who oversees the product line, which also includes another drone, the X100.
The systems cost $30,000 to $50,000, depending on the model and software. They are being used abroad to track changes at mining, construction and agricultural sites.
But before drones take up these and other jobs in the United States, the surveillance issues are hovering.
“We need to put in place good privacy protection,” Stanley of the ACLU said, “so that people can innovate around this technology without the cloud of Big Brother hanging over them.”
His organization is by no means opposed to all uses of drones.
“We don’t like video surveillance of people by the government,” he said. “But when citizens can use photography to watch over the government, we think that’s a good thing.”