DAYTON, Ohio — The expansion of military drone technology for surveillance and other domestic uses has the potential to create thousands of new jobs, but it remains unclear what privacy safeguards will be put in place or how usage will be restricted to protect citizens.
“This isn’t the Wild West, and we have to have some sort of rules governing how those drones are going to be used,” said Mike Brickner, a spokesman with the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. “We don’t want drones to be flying everywhere, deployed and taking pictures of Americans walking down the street not really doing anything.”
Advocates say such concerns are unfounded, and communities will set rules for deploying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), just as police have rules for pulling a gun or a Taser on a suspect.
“It’s like anything: reasonableness and common sense is going to prevail,” said Michael K. Farrell, president of the Ohio chapter of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
The debate over regulating a possibly booming industry comes as Congress pushes to integrate remotely piloted vehicles into manned airspace by 2015. The Federal Aviation Administration has projected a fleet of 10,000 small UAVs within five years and up to 30,000 within two decades.
Advocates say UAVs could have ubiquitous benefits. The flying vehicles could spot fires, monitor crops, gather news or aid law enforcement, said Joseph E. Zeis, executive vice president and chief strategic officer at the Dayton Development Coalition.
But the absence of rules on privacy has some concerned.
“We believe if they are not put into place before drones are used, serious privacy violations could occur,” said Amie Stepanovich, a privacy rights lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. She’s also concerned about sharing U.S. Customs and Border Protection or military UAV-gathered data over domestic territory with civilian agencies.
Robert A. Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriffs’ Association, said at least a dozen Ohio sheriffs have told him they’d like to fly UAVs on search and rescue missions and marijuana eradication sweeps. One sheriff has mentioned the possibility of launching mini-drones through the corridors of a jail to watch inmates.
Cornwell sees a role for UAVs in law enforcement, and says people face surveillance daily when they travel in public places that have cameras.
“You’re on camera an awful lot and you don’t even know it,” he said. “People have protections; if they feel their civil rights are being violated, they can sue in federal court.
“I think people, if they want to retain their security and safety and peace of mind, sometimes we have to give up those privacy rights to retain those,” he said. Agencies violating the public trust “should be sued and taken to federal court and dealt with harshly.”
Farrell said fears of privacy intrusion are an “overreaction.”
“You’re more likely to have the neighborhood kid down the street flying a personally owned (radio-controlled airplane) in the neighborhood than the police department flying a UAV invading your privacy,” he said. “I can understand why some people may think these things could be misused, but the opportunity for misuse is not really there.”
The privacy concerns have spanned the ideological spectrum, with both liberals and conservatives raising a caution flag.
Two congressmen, Reps. Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Ed Markey, D-Mass., asked the Federal Aviation Administration in April for answers on how UAVs will be used as the nation prepares to select sites late this year to test aerial drones.
“Drones can be helpful in certain situations, but there’s also a slippery slope that we want to make sure we don’t go down,” said Sean Brown, a Barton spokesman.
The congressmen are still awaiting the FAA’s answers, staff aides say.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., have introduced companion legislation to prevent the use of drones for domestic surveillance without a warrant. The bills, introduced this month, grant exceptions for border patrol, the risk of a terrorist attack, and law enforcement “exigent circumstances” to save life, or prevent serious property destruction or the escape of a suspect.
John Feldmeier, a Wright State University political science professor who teaches public law, said he believes the fear of UAVs derives in part from video showing U.S. attacks overseas on terrorists.
“We’ve certainly seen the images of what drones can do in terms of actual strikes,” he said. “I think that image is seared in much of the minds of the American public.”
There’s also been the swell of the anti-big-government tea party movement, he said.
“The thought is drones might become quite prevalent and we’re also in a political environment … where any expansion of government power or government capability is met with resistance,” he said.
Much of what unmanned aircraft do, Feldmeier said, mirrors what manned surveillance aircraft do now.
“In many ways, the use of drones is not different than other types of aircraft that do surveillance for road traffic,” he said. “In many ways, I just think this is an old issue that’s been modernized with a different type of aircraft. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel to deal with this.”
At Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Air Force Institute of Technology are actively involved in drone research. The AFRL, for example, has a micro-aviary that tests the miniaturization of drones the size of birds. The Air Force has flown UAVs, such as the Predator and Reaper, to hunt and kill suspected terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At AFIT, the Advanced Navigation Technology lab flies mini-UAVs as part of its research. Military researchers, for example, have talked of indoor UAVs capable of navigating and mapping buildings.
The work has fed a contractor industry outside the base gate. Future predictions on the size of the commercial market vary widely, Zeis said, but the industry is expected to grow in the billions of dollars.
“There are a lot of numbers out there that make predictions difficult,” he said. “They all end in a B: billion.
“I think our piece of that is only limited by our imagination,” he said.