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DRONE Project Main

Matthew McClellan/MEDILL

Cole Larson-Whittaker holds his latest Christmas present. A toy drone from Brookstone.

Droned out airspace: Privacy vs. safety

by Matthew McClellan
March 14, 2013

DRONE Project 2

Matthew McClellan/MEDILL

Cole Larson-Whittaker plays back video captured from his toy drone.

DRONE Project 3

Matthew McClellan/MEDILL

Cole Larson-Whittaker plays back video captured from his toy drone.

Matthew McClellan/MEDILL

Cole Larson-Whittaker talks about capturing video with his toy drone and the uneasy privacy implications that come with these high-end toys.

Matthew McClellan/MEDILL

The American Civil Liberties Union's Illinois Director of Communications and Public Policy Ed Yohnka discusses the privacy implications of drone use by law enforcement and civilians.

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a drone! Or unmanned aerial vehicle. Or perhaps even a model aircraft.

Whatever the identifying name, there are a number of aircraft other than airplanes flying in national airspace. The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that in less than 20 years, nearly 30,000 drones will be airborne.

Drone talk has been part of the public dialogue for more than a decade, due to increased use of weaponized versions of these unmanned aircraft in the War on Terror.

The Congressional Research Service categorizes drones as unmanned aerial vehicles -- aircraft operated remotely, without a human aboard. Such vehicles comprise unmanned aircraft systems, which include the aircraft, digital networks and personnel on the ground used to operate these systems.

Last year, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which requires the agency to fast-track the integration of civilian drones and other unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system by Sept. 30, 2015.

But with the integration of these aircraft comes a number of competing interests, namely safety, privacy, financial and law enforcement concerns.

Safe Skies for Drones to Fly

Last week, an Italian airline pilot for Alitalia spotted an unmanned aircraft while flying into John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. According to an FBI release, the aircraft came within 200 feet of the plane, which was flying at an altitude of 1,750 feet.

It’s been reported that the pilot described the aircraft as a drone, black in color with four propellers, no more than three feet wide.

This description almost matches a toy, Brookstone’s Parrot AR.Drone 2.0. Quadricopter. Like the drone the Alitalia pilot spotted, the Parrot is mostly black with four propellers and no more than three feet wide (1.9 feet).

The toy drone is marketed for ages 14 and up, and costs only $300. But the toy can really fly, to a tune of more than a quarter of a mile.

Chicago Parrot owner Cole Larson-Whittaker knows firsthand how high his latest Christmas present can get.

While operating his iPad-controlled toy drone Saturday afternoon, it hovered near the top of a Lakeview apartment building before the wind sent it careening into a tree.

Twenty minutes and more than 20 snowballs later, Larson-Whittaker and a volunteer posse were able to knock his drone out of the tree. The durable toy was ready for takeoff moments later, as Larson-Whittaker captured high definition video of scenes in his neighborhood on his airborne drone.

According to an FAA representative in Washington, D.C., Les Dorr, the FAA does not use the term drone, and instead identifies these kinds of aircraft as unmanned aircraft systems or model aircraft.

Regardless, safety is a concern for the administration as it moves to integrate these aircraft into national airspace.

Model aircraft have been somewhat integrated since 1981, with the administration’s release of an advisory circular that set out the parameters for model flight. Modelers can’t fly aircraft any higher than 400 feet, and they must inform airport operators or air traffic control if they’re flying their aircraft within 3 miles of an airport.

Dorr said commercial uses by modelers are prohibited, and in 2007, the administration clarified that companies flying model aircraft for business purposes do not fall under the exception for model aircraft.

Unmanned aircraft systems range in size, some having wingspans as large as a Boeing 737 or as small as a radio-controlled model plane.

Whether the drone the Alitalia pilot spotted was an unmanned aircraft system or model aircraft poses the same safety concern because the danger assessment would have been the same for the pilot, regardless of the aircraft operator’s purpose for flying the aircraft that close to the airport and commercial airline.

Elizabeth Cory, a representative in the administration’s Great Lakes region based in Des Plaines, said that had the incident occurred at O’Hare or any other airport, the protocol for air traffic control and the pilot would be the same.

“When FAA air traffic control or the pilot recognizes an unsafe proximity to aircraft, which a UAS is considered to be, they are to immediately communicate with each other,” Cory said. Then they must take specific action to ensure the safety of the aircraft, air traffic control’s No. 1 priority.

Aviation expert Matt Andersson, president of Chicago-based Indigo Aerospace, said unmanned aircraft and drones pose a serious problem because of the lack of safety features and measures that are in place when it comes to traditional, manned aircraft, and not necessarily because of intentional misuse by civilians.

Andersson said the main problems revolve around separation technology, the ability to maintain safe distances from other aircraft and the certification standards and training of drone operators.

“Drones are rather actually a low-tech aircraft as far as an airplane is considered,” Andersson said. Such vehicles’ low performance and maneuverability make them awkward and clumsy as flying machines.

Andersson added that when compared to the manual controls on a civilian airplane or airliner, which have had the benefit of design modifications over decades, the remote control technology found in drones is still experimental and not terribly refined.

And while Andersson doesn’t rule out the potential for civilian misuse in the wrong hands, he said the biggest risk of misuse of drone technology is from official domains.

Privacy vs. Police

Andersson’s sentiment is shared with Illinois state Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston.

"We're heading into a world where technology surveillance is unreal,” Biss said, prompting him to introduce the Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act last month in the state senate. The bill was given its second reading this week.

The act would ban law enforcement from using drones for surveillance and gathering information, except in limited circumstances, which would include a risk of a terrorist attack, supported by credible intelligence from Homeland Security; when law enforcement first obtains a warrant naming a specific person or place; and in exigent circumstances, needing immediate attention and action.

In a press release regarding the proposed bill, Biss said with the increasing prevalent use of drones and similar aircraft, this is “the exact moment states should be looking into" regulating their uses to ensure privacy.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois has supported Biss in his push to pass the bill.

Ed Yohnka, the Illinois division’s communications and public policy director, said having these guidelines in place is important before the technology becomes prevalent.

But Yohnka said the proposed law isn’t overreaching and strikes a balance between the competing interests of privacy and law enforcement needs, unlike in some states that have called for all-out bans.

“One of the law enforcement agencies came to us after the bill had been introduced and said they wanted an exception for taking photographs at crime scenes,” Yohnka said. Those are not the types of uses the bill seeks to limit, Yohnka said.

“We were really focused on this idea of trying to stop from using these very quiet, very small, yet very sophisticated tools to do massive surveillance.” Yohnka said.

But proponents of more invasive drone use for police work argue that it’s no more intrusive than warrantless helicopter flyovers, which the United States Supreme Court has ruled are permissible when flown at above 400 feet.

However, Yohnka said drone surveillance is not the same as the helicopter scenario.

“This equipment is more quiet and more stealth, […] less expensive, and you can keep it in the air over longer periods of time,” Yohnka said.

“That kind of reach and prevalence of the surveillance is something that we think distinguishes drones from those fixed-wing aircraft, and I think that really is the heart of what makes it different.”

Drones in the Future

While Biss’ bill focuses on law enforcement use of drones, it doesn’t address civilian use and privacy implications.

Yohnka said there are similarities in the ways law enforcement and civilians could potentially use drones, such as the capture of information intended to be kept private, as well as surveillance.

Yohnka said it’s likely the Illinois legislature will move forward to address private citizen drone use in the months ahead.

“I think, just in terms of thinking about our personal privacy and concerns that people often have about being stalked or cyber-stalked, and things of that nature” Yohnka said, “surveillance tools, like drones, just really take that to another level.”

But Andersson makes note of the positive uses for drones, such as for surveying, mapping, weather observation and oil and gas logistics.

“I think those uses have not been recognized because of the larger reactions around the misuse in the hands of unaccountable government agencies,” Andersson said.

“Their application in civilian use, where the infrastructure is not really sufficient yet, there hasn’t been broad based development and deployment of those aircraft yet.”

Andersson said he doesn’t see drones falling out of the public consciousness anytime soon because of the financial stake for many different groups.

“The drone is a very high-growth, highly powerful area of business,” Andersson said.

“You’ve got a lot of industrial lobbyist groups who are interested in being in this technology, whether they make the engine or the wing or frame or the remote control function.”