Drones Set Sights on US Skies
Daniel Gárate’s career came crashing to earth a few weeks ago. That’s when the Los Angeles Police Department warned local real estate agents not to hire photographers like Mr. Gárate, who was helping sell luxury property by using a drone to shoot sumptuous aerial movies. Flying drones for commercial purposes, the police said, violated federal aviation rules.
“I was paying the bills with this,” said Mr. Gárate, who recently gave an unpaid demonstration of his drone in this Southern California suburb.
His career will soon get back on track. A new federal law, signed by the president on Tuesday, compels the Federal Aviation Administration to allow drones to be used for all sorts of commercial endeavors — from selling real estate and dusting crops, to monitoring oil spills and wildlife, even shooting Hollywood films. Local police and emergency services will also be freer to send up their own drones.
But while businesses, and drone manufacturers especially, are celebrating the opening of the skies to these unmanned aerial vehicles, the law raises new worries about how much detail the drones will capture about lives down below — and what will be done with that information. Safety concerns like midair collisions and property damage on the ground are also an issue.
American courts have generally permitted surveillance of private property from public airspace. But scholars of privacy law expect that the likely proliferation of drones will force Americans to re-examine how much surveillance they are comfortable with.
“As privacy law stands today, you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy while out in public, nor almost anywhere visible from a public vantage,” said Ryan Calo, director of privacy and robotics at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University. “I don’t think this doctrine makes sense, and I think the widespread availability of drones will drive home why to lawmakers, courts and the public.”
Some questions likely to come up: Can a drone flying over a house pick up heat from a lamp used to grow marijuana inside, or take pictures from outside someone’s third-floor fire escape? Can images taken from a drone be sold to a third party, and how long can they be kept?
Drone proponents say the privacy concerns are overblown. Randy McDaniel, chief deputy of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department in Conroe, Tex., near Houston, whose agency bought a drone to use for various law enforcement operations, dismissed worries about surveillance, saying everyone everywhere can be photographed with cellphone cameras anyway. “We don’t spy on people,” he said. “We worry about criminal elements.”
Still, the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups are calling for new protections against what the A.C.L.U. has said could be “routine aerial surveillance of American life.”
Under the new law, within 90 days, the F.A.A. must allow police and first responders to fly drones under 4.4 pounds, as long as they keep them under an altitude of 400 feet and meet other requirements. The agency must also allow for “the safe integration” of all kinds of drones into American airspace, including those for commercial uses, by Sept. 30, 2015. And it must come up with a plan for certifying operators and handling airspace safety issues, among other rules.
The new law, part of a broader financing bill for the F.A.A., came after intense lobbying by drone makers and potential customers.
The agency probably will not be making privacy rules for drones. Although federal law until now had prohibited drones except for recreational use or for some waiver-specific law enforcement purposes, the agency has issued only warnings, never penalties, for unauthorized uses, a spokeswoman said. The agency was reviewing the law’s language, the spokeswoman said.
For drone makers, the change in the law comes at a particularly good time. With the winding-down of the war in Afghanistan, where drones have been used to gather intelligence and fire missiles, these manufacturers have been awaiting lucrative new opportunities at home. The market for drones is valued at $5.9 billion and is expected to double in the next decade, according to industry figures. Drones can cost millions of dollars for the most sophisticated varieties to as little as $300 for one that can be piloted from an iPhone .
“We see a huge potential market,” said Ben Gielow of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a drone maker trade group.
For Patrick Egan, who represents small businesses and others in his work for the Remote Control Aerial Photography Association in Sacramento, the new law also can’t come fast enough. Until 2007, when the federal agency began warning against nonrecreational use of drones, he made up to $2,000 an hour using a drone to photograph crops for farmers, helping them spot irrigation leaks. “I’ve got organic farmers screaming for me to come out,” he said.
The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department in Texas bought its 50-pound drone in October from Vanguard Defense Industries, a company founded by Michael Buscher, who built drones for the army, and then sold them to an oil company whose ships were threatened by pirates in the Gulf of Aden. The company custom-built the drone, which takes pictures by day and senses heat sources at night. It cost $300,000, a fraction of the cost of a helicopter.
Mr. McDaniel said his SWAT team could use it for reconnaissance, or to manage road traffic after a big accident. He said he regretted that he didn’t have it a few months ago, to search for a missing person in a densely wooded area.
Mr. Buscher, meanwhile, said he was negotiating with several police agencies. “There is tremendous potential,” he said. “We see agencies dipping their toes.”
The possibilities for drones appear limitless. Last year, Cy Brown of Bunkie, La., began hunting feral pigs at night by outfitting a model airplane with a heat-sensing camera that soared around his brother’s rice farm, feeding live aerial images of the pigs to Mr. Brown on the ground. Mr. Brown relayed the pigs’ locations by radio to a friend with a shotgun.
He calls his plane the Dehogaflier, and says it saves him time wandering in the muck looking for skittish pigs. “Now you can know in 15 minutes if it’s worth going out,” said Mr. Brown, an electrical engineer.
Earlier this month, in Woodland Hills, Mr. Gárate, the photographer, demonstrated his drone by flicking a hand-held joystick and sending the $5,000 machine hovering high above a tennis court. A camera beneath the drone recorded lush, high-definition video of the surrounding property.
Bill Kerbox, a real estate agent in Malibu who hired Mr. Gárate for several shoots before the L.A.P.D. crackdown, said that aerial video had helped him stand out from his competitors, and that the loss of it had been painful.
Mr. Gárate, for now, plans to work mainly in his native Peru, where he has used his drone to shoot commercials for banks. He said he was approached by paparazzi last year about filming the reality television star Kim Kardashian’s wedding using a drone, but turned down the offer. “Maybe the F.A.A. should give a driver’s license for this, with a flight test,” he said. “Do a background check to make sure I’m not a terrorist.”