Some law enforcement agencies are using small unmanned aircraft to search for missing people, capture fleeing criminals or photograph crime scenes. But some privacy experts fear those drones will soon watch your every move.
In Grand Forks on Friday, industry officials and legal experts from around the country debated the appropriate and ethical uses for drones.
Only a few law enforcement agencies across the country now use small unmanned aircraft because flying small drones requires a special waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The Mesa County Sheriff's Department in Colorado has been using drones for five years. It's one of the first and most watched law enforcement drone operations in the country. Program manager Ben Miller said they've flown 50 missions.
"We do mostly search and rescue and now we're becoming aerial photographers at crime scenes and traffic accidents," Miller said.
Miller said the small aircraft that fit in the trunk of a car aren't practical for surveillance because, unlike large military drones, they can't stay in the air for long periods of time.
Miller points out the drones can't do everything a manned airplane or helicopter can do, but they are affordable for agencies that don't have the money for manned aircraft. The average cost for a basic drone is tens of thousands of dollars. Manufacturers often donate drones to law enforcement agencies.
"The number one benefit, easily, is cost," Miller said. "I always tell people we do 30 percent of mission of manned aircraft for 2 percent of the cost."
Miller said his agency has never used a drone for surveillance, and doesn't plan to.
The privacy discussion was part of a two-day conference in Grand Forks that brought together 350 people from across the country to talk about the emerging drone industry.
Police and sheriff's officials say they don't use small drones for surveillance, but American Civil Liberties Union privacy expert Jay Stanley is not reassured.
"I think in the early days they will be used very carefully. They will be used with good rules. They will be used with the knowledge the public is watching because they are so new," Stanley said.
Stanley said he's more concerned about a future where small drones are cheap and ubiquitous.
"Soon it's a police department that could barely afford, or couldn't even afford one helicopter, now for a couple of thousand dollars can put a fleet of very powerful surveillance tools up 24/7/365 over a neighborhood or an entire city," Stanley said.
Congress needs to establish laws limiting the use of drones, Stanley said. He said it could take the courts decades to sort out privacy issues related to increased surveillance. Experts say current court rulings based on the use of manned aircraft will apply to drones until specific cases are considered by courts.
INDUSTRY DOWNPLAYS CONCERNS
But industry officials say privacy concerns are much broader and shouldn't be focused on drones.
"The issue is, does the government have the right to take a picture of you and use that picture against you in court, without a warrant?" asked Ben Gielow, who lobbies Congress on behalf of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Lots of cameras are taking photos of public places. Gielow argues drones shouldn't be singled out because it's not important how the picture is taken.
"Whether it be a manned aircraft, unmanned aircraft, a satellite, cellphones, street cameras, whatever," Gielow said. "This is really a data issue. So if Congress wants to address privacy issues, or state houses want to address privacy issues, then they should do so in a technology-neutral way."
Gielow said restrictions on drone use now could stifle the industry before it has a chance to take off.
Jay Stanley with the ACLU said law enforcement use of drones should be restricted, but use by the public should not be limited. He said current privacy laws, like a city's peeping Tom ordinance, should be used to manage potential invasion of privacy by citizens. He said commercial use should be allowed to flourish.
"We want to see them used both for creative things, an explosion of creativity and human ingenuity let loose by this amazing tool. And we want them to be used as a check and balance against the government," Stanley said. "We think the people should have a right to watch what the government is doing, but the government should not be watching the people."
The Grand Forks Sheriff's office and the University of North Dakota are part of a research project to develop standards for law enforcement use of drones.
North Dakota and Minnesota are both seeking to be named one of six national unmanned aircraft test sites.