Drones Are Watching

Military and law enforcement drones are the source of much controversy, but what about their use by private citizens or companies?

What was once thought to be Sci-Fi is now reality. And the Federal Aviation Administration estimates nearly 30,000 unmanned aerial vehicles could be filling our skies by the year 2020.

Mark Pires, a New Canaan Realtor, is a self-declared drone hobbyist. He’s found a way to mix business with his pleasure. Using the three-to-four pound quad copter, with camera attached, to help market his luxury properties with video and pictures.

The $5000 quad copter sounds like a swarm of bees. With red and green lights, and not much bigger than a small pizza box, it resembles something a child can buy at the local mall, but slap on a camera and all of a sudden, this remote-controlled toy transforms into something much more.

But there’s a twist. Even though they look like toys – the use of drones is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The only operators who don’t need FAA approval are model aircraft hobbyists.

The regulations state they must fly them lower than 400 feet, not in populated areas or anywhere that can impede on air traffic, and they cannot be used for any commercial use.

Pires argues that because he’s not charging his clients, it’s not commercial use.

Despite his assertion he’s within the FAA rules, the California Association of Realtors recently warned their members to hold off on using photography drones.

The FAA could impose up to a $100,000 fine and up to 10 years in prison for anyone in violation.

Still, Pires is confident he’s in the right.

“It’s pretty loud, people really hear it when it’s out there but the biggest concern that I’ve had from people is that the FAA has anything to say about it at all,” said Pires.

From the military, police departments, private businesses to just hobbyists – the discussion over the uses of drones revolves around how and when, not if, they’ll be more prevalent in the future.

Right now the FAA is working on updating all the rules on who can operate drones and for what purposes. Those are expected to be released in 2015.

“It’s an issue that 10 years ago would have been unthinkable,” said David McGuire, a staff attorney at the Connecticut ACLU chapter. “It’s the kind of thing where people need to realize a lot of their life is going to be captured by these aerial cameras.”

What happens to the data collected by these cameras, especially by the government, has the ACLU paying close attention.

“It’s been an active year for drone legislation across the country,” said McGuire. “Forty-three states have put in place some kind of bill discussing regulating drones and most of those bills require probable cause warrant before a drone is used by the government to monitor someone.”

But Connecticut is not one of them… yet.

State Representatives Matthew Ritter and James Albis are planning on sponsoring legislation in the next legislative session. This year being the last chance to do so before the skies are expected open up to more of these vehicles in 2015.

“It’s a putting the genie back in the bottle issue,” said McGuire. “It’s very difficult to regulate, after the fact, when this technology has been in use."

Right now, the University of Connecticut is the only known licensed entity that has FAA approval to work with drone here in the state. However, some city police departments, like Hartford, are looking into how drones can be used in the future.

With a team of about a dozen masters and doctorate students, UConn Professor Chengyu Cao is leading the research into how to make aerial and underwater unmanned vehicles more autonomous. He says drones are nothing to fear.

“It’s a technology still in primitive stage and could benefit people in easier ways,” said Cao.

Benefits could include everything from the use of drones by utility companies for check poles and wires to farmers protecting their land or animals.

“The technology is limited only by the creativity of the instrument you attach to the drone,” says Eric Brown, of the Connecticut Business and Industries Association. “There’s an infinite number of things other than visual monitors.”

CBIA expects drones to play a vital role in the future of Connecticut businesses.

“We want to make sure is that as the FAA is taking action, we want to make sure they’re considering the prospective of the private sector,” says Brown.

The FAA estimates there could be 30 thousand drones in the air by 2020.

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