Commercial drones face preflight turbulence

Commercial drones face preflight turbulence

Some civil liberties organisations with privacy concerns are urging strict limits on their use.

Before long, drones will be flying across the skies of the United States, part of the way companies do business every day. These remotely piloted vehicles aren’t the weaponised 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 clamoured to use drones, which each year become smaller and smarter. But while the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the nation’s airspace, 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 that Congress has required the FAA to come up with rules to integrate drones safely into American skies. After that, for example, 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 organisations with privacy concerns are urging strict limits on their use. With their increasingly 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, he warned.

The ACLU wants to prevent government agencies from using drones for “pervasive, suspicionless mass surveillance,” Stanley said. Even if such surveillance is forbidden in the future, “there’s real potential for the government turning to the private sector to do what it is banned from doing itself,” he said. “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,” he 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 San Francisco-based 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.”

Limiting drones

Legislatures in several states are already 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 already arisen in opposition to government drones, and the advent of commercial drones could lead to more. In Deer Trail, Colorado, 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 already proceeding in Canada. In Edmonton, Alberta, Stantec, a consulting company that uses aerial photography in its design and mapping business, recently bought a drone made by senseFly and has been training with it this past winter and spring. Stantec is seeking certification and licensing for commercial use from the Canadian government.

Curt Chapman, a company vice president based in Reno, Nev., says he expects that it will soon be approved for low-altitude photography on a project-by-project basis, rather than being granted a blanket licence. The drone’s advantage, he said, is that it is handy for immediate use. “We can take it out, fly it and capture conditions” such as flooding, he said. “It may take days or weeks to schedule the same flight on a manned vehicle.”

Companies in the United States are preparing for drones, too. Customers can buy an entire system, consisting of the aerial vehicle, software and a control station, for less than $1,00,000, with smaller systems going for $15,000 to $50,000, said Jeff Lovin, a senior vice president at Woolpert, a mapping and design firm in Dayton, Ohio. Woolpert owns six traditional, piloted twin-engine aircraft to collect data for aerial mapping; these typically cost $2 million to $3 million to buy , and several thousand dollars an hour to operate, he said.

Gavin Schrock, a professional surveyor and associate editor of Professional Surveyor magazine, says he thinks that 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 organisation 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.”