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Does Unregulated Drone Technology Threaten Personal Privacy?

Saturday, March 22, 2014


While state and federal lawmakers struggle to launch regulations to meet the advancement of drone technology, consumers can purchase said drones for any budget at the click of a mouse.

Not too long ago one had to spend hundreds of dollars and take special flight training courses to be able to fly a radio controlled (RC) chopper. Now you can buy them at the mall or online - with cameras - and fly them with relative ease. Just $50 will get you a decent RC helicopter – able to hover easily – with a 3-megapixel camera that takes video and still photos. A 1G Micro SD card, charger and infrared remote control are included. In the time it takes to have a package delivered anyone with a minimal amount of hand/eye coordination and tech savvy can spy on the neighbors.

Regulating the sky

Massachusetts and Rhode Island lawmakers are trying to catch up with a sector of technology that is literally flying into the future. In Mass., bills introduced by Sen. Robert Hedlund & Rep. Colleen Garry aim to regulate these vehicles. They have the support of the local American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“We think of drones as controversial tools of warfare and killing, but this remote controlled aerial surveillance technology is also increasingly of interest to local law enforcement,” said the ACLU in a release.

“Drones are set to launch in Massachusetts. Drones are stealth aerial surveillance machines. They are flown remotely, and are equipped with powerful video cameras and other advanced technology to monitor people and activity on the ground. They can be as big as a plane or as small as a butterfly.”

The bill would ban the use of weaponized drones in Massachusetts and permit the use of drones only in limited circumstances, such as the execution of a warrant and in emergencies when a threat to human life or safety is imminent.

“Drones should never use biometric matching technology, except to identify the subject of a warrant; collect data on other people who are not the subject of the warrant; or monitor people’s lawful First Amendment activities. And to make sure drone use doesn't ‘fly under the radar,’ state courts should publicly report to the legislature, on an annual basis, about warrants authorizing drone use in the Commonwealth.”

A similar effort is being waged in Rhode Island. Saying science fiction has become science fact, Rep. Teresa Tanzi recently reintroduced legislation to regulate drone use by local law-enforcement agencies. The legislation (2014-H 7170) would require public hearings before law enforcement agencies could acquire drones, as well as assent from the applicable city or town council for municipal departments and the governor for state agencies. If permitted, drone usage would follow existing regulations for wiretapping a phone. Each individual use of a drone by a law-enforcement agency for investigation of criminal or civil matters or for any intelligence-gathering purpose would require the involvement of the attorney general’s office, which would have to get approval from Superior Court on the agency’s behalf.

When is a drone a drone?

Outside of the military and the media, the use of the word “drones” is tricky.

“The word ‘drones’ can be loaded. On campus, we refer to them as ‘unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs),” said Andy Baron, PR & Media Associate at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s (WPI) Division of Marketing & Communications.

Some of his public relations colleagues in the RC aviation world agree. Billed as helicopters or quad copters, these nimble vehicles for aerial photography, video and audio capture are rarely referred to as drones in promotional literature by leading companies such as Blade. Parrot Inc., however, proudly bills their menacing, four-propeller crafts as AR.Drones.

WPI is a fitting place for a discussion about aerial technology. On March 16, 1926, Robert H. Goddard launched the first liquid-fueled rocket in a farmer’s field in Auburn, Mass., just south of Worcester. Goddard erected a metal framework and placed within it a gangly looking contraption. Its fuel, a mixture of gasoline and liquid oxygen, was ignited, and with a roar the rocket rose 41 feet into the air, falling in a heap 184 feet from its starting point.

Today, any kid with $25 can walk into a toy or hobby store and buy a model rocket kit capable of soaring hundreds of feet into the air and return to Earth via parachute for another launch. When Goddard’s invention first took off, however, some ridiculed him as a fool. No one could see that the technology he invented from the ground up become the foundation for modern rocketry.

Congress ordered a special gold medal struck in his honor, and the American Rocket Society and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics created Goddard awards. WPI also has a Goddard Award (for professional achievement by alumni), as well as Goddard Hall (home of the Chemistry and Biochemistry and Chemical Engineering departments), a Goddard graduate fellowship, and the Goddard GigaPoP (WPI's portal to Internet2). Perhaps the greatest tribute to the father of modern rocketry is NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, established in 1961, exactly 35 years after Goddard's first rocket rose from that field in Auburn, Mass.

WPI is doing research on UAVs in a program funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Practical research

Professor Nikolaos Gatsonis and Professor Michael Demetriou of WPI’s Aerospace Engineering Program are performing research on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in a program funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR). They propose to use UAVs equipped with sensors and intelligence in order to detect the location and the effects of a stationary or moving gaseous source.

“In addition, the SAVs will provide vital information about the effects and extent of the gaseous plume, so that preventive measures can be taken. In the case of a biological release such as human odors, these UAVs can be used in search and rescue operations. The two professors already have plans to extend the application using terrain and underwater sensing vehicles,” Baron said.

Professor Gatsonis and his colleague may be involved with intricate Air Force experiments, but he said any American can see the potential of advancing UAV technology.

“The general public knows a lot about the capabilities and potential of UAVs, of all types and sizes. This area of technology is actually far more accessible to the general public as compared to others. Everyone can experience the use of small UAVs and foresee potential utilization,” he said.

“Availability and increase capability of UAVs will drastically increase applications. A comprehensive regulatory footprint is needed to ensure safety – altitude of operations, sizes available to the general public – and usage, as has been the case for all technologies that become readily available.”

Up, up and away

Want to get into the “drone wars?” It’s pretty easy. Easy enough, in fact, that demonstrators from Code Pink recently enlisted the help of a tiny pink helicopter while protesting NSA surveillance. They chose to protest outside the home of California Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

“I’m in my home and there’s a demonstration out front, and I go to peek out the window, and there’s a drone facing me,” she told “60 Minutes.”

Drones and RC choppers aren’t the same thing, of course, but when the RC chopper is carrying an HD camera, what’s the difference?

Here are some options for a variety of budgets:

Blade 350 QX - $500

This quad copter, built to carry an onboard GoPro HD camera, comes with GPS technology that allows the craft to hover in a specific position for stable aerial footage. It will move in the direction of the pilot’s choice no matter the orientation of the craft, and will safely return to the pilot on its own with the flick of a switch on the radio control.

Blade 180 QX – $150

Called an “easy to fly eye in the sky,” this little quad copter is light, agile, and cheap. If comes with some of the features of it’s big brother, the 350 QX, but carries a smaller camera – still and video – with 720p video resolution. The 180 QX is small enough to fly indoors.

Udi Chopper W – $50

This is an entry-level, RC chopper equipped with a video camera. It’s considered easy to fly, has a range of about 32 feet, and comes with a 1G Micro SD card for pictures and videos. This chopper is ready to fly right out of the box.


Related Slideshow: Did You Know? Central MA Did It First!

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