Unless privacy laws are strengthened, the American Civil Liberties Union envisions a day when police departments large and small use unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor troubled neighborhoods.
With its decision this month to delay the creation of six national test sites for UAVs, the Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged that the ACLU's fears might not be that far fetched, although an industry spokeswoman largely dismissed the concerns as imagined.
In a letter obtained last week by the Springfield News-Sun to members of Congress, the FAA pointed out the need to first address the privacy issues, along with safety concerns, that come with increasing the number of drones in U.S. airspace.
The Springfield-Dayton region is seeking to become a nationally recognized hub of unmanned aerial vehicle testing, development and manufacturing. Winning one of the six test-site designations is seen as key.
The purpose of the test sites -- which had been scheduled to be selected in December -- is to determine how unmanned aircraft can be safely integrated into traditional manned airspace by 2015 in order to perform an endless array of duties, from border security and relaying telecommunications signals to traffic monitoring and crop dusting.
If picked as one of the test sites, UAVs in this area would likely take off from the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport and the Wilmington Air Park, then fly to military airspace in southern Ohio once used by F-16s from the Springfield Air National Guard Base.
In anticipation, the city of Springfield is spending up to $267,000 to continue operating the base's air traffic control tower, which is no longer used by the Guard, for another year. The city also wants to build a new, $2.3 million hangar complex to attract drone developers.
But unresolved issues abound for unmanned aircraft systems, according to a report released in September by the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office, leading the FAA to indefinitely delay the process of creating test ranges.
"Concerns about national security, privacy and the interference in GPS signals have not been resolved," the GAO report stated.
From a safety standpoint, the report stated, UAVs still are unable to sense and avoid other aircraft and airborne objects, and because nonmilitary GPS signals are unencrypted, the command and control of UAVs is vulnerable.
In addition, the threat to privacy is real, according to Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU.
"Unfortunately," he said, "there is a long history of law enforcement conducting indiscriminate surveillance and wanting to watch people just in case they commit a crime."
"Unless we take action, we're likely to have a problem on our hands," he added.
The privacy issue is looming in the industry, said Gretchen West, executive vice president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an organization that seeks to advance unmanned systems and robotics in defense, civil and commercial sectors.
But there's a lot of sensationalism that's happening with the dialogue, she said.
Whenever the media reports on unmanned aircraft, she said, outlets often show pictures of large Predators or Reapers used by the military and CIA to track and kill suspected militants.
"There's a misunderstanding in the general public we're trying to address," she said.
It's wrong, West said, for the FAA to wade into the privacy debate.
"We don't believe the FAA is responsible for privacy," she said. "Their mandate is to create safety in the skies."
Unmanned aircraft used domestically by law enforcement and first responders, she said, don't have the capabilities of a military drone. For starters, they only have between 30 and 60 minutes of flight time.
Currently, commercial use of UAVs is prohibited.
Federal, state and local government agencies and universities are able to fly UAVs on a limited basis, and only with special authorization from the FAA.
Customs and Border Protection uses nine UAVs for border security. NASA uses a Predator to collect real-time hurricane data and to map wildfires.
Local law enforcement agencies, according to the GAO, right now have 146 types of small UAVs to choose from, manufactured by 69 different companies in the U.S. alone.
"We're talking about small systems," West said, adding that one could be transported in the trunk of a patrol car.
The fears, she said, of persistent surveillance by law enforcement are unfounded. "That's not possible right now," she said.
Regardless, the industry believes privacy safeguards already are in place through the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizure, and case law, West said.
She also points to recommended guidelines adopted in August by the International Association of Chiefs of Police for the use of unmanned aircraft.
The guidelines recommend that flights only be used with a search warrant or for a legitimate public safety mission. In addition, except in instances where officer safety could be jeopardized, the guidelines urge agencies to consider using public address systems or a reverse 911 phone system to alert those living and working in the vicinity of an airborne UAV.
But as the technology gets cheaper, said Stanley from the ACLU, police forces in small and medium-sized cities that can't afford a helicopter "might be the first to leap at a chance to have cheaper aerial surveillance."
The conservative Heritage Foundation, with a paper released in September, urged the FAA to consider constitutional concerns and privacy rights before allowing the widespread use of drones.
While the Constitution protects against unreasonable searches, Stanley said it's difficult to predict how judges will interpret the use of drones.
"The courts have not always been very good at keeping that vital privacy right up to date," he said.
On one hand, it should be easy to see how a drone might infringe on an individual's privacy.
"If a police officer followed somebody around for a month, they'd be a little freaked out," he said. "It's doing the same thing, but using technology. It's just as intrusive. Possibly more intrusive. A police officer can't see you in the dark. A drone can."
Wittenberg University sociologist David Nibert doesn't have faith in the courts, pointing to the fact that courts have ruled that drug-sniffing dogs aren't a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Nibert fears the good uses of drones -- locating missing children, for example -- will be outweighed by the misuse.
"Heavy police surveillance has usually been in neighborhoods where people have fewer economic resources," he said. "It seems like a more sophisticated way of stop and frisk."
While UAVs are predicted to become a $90 billion global industry within the next decade, they still seem like the stuff of science-fiction to many.
When asked whether the Ohio State Highway Patrol, which has an aircraft division, had any interest in obtaining or using an unmanned aerial vehicle, a spokeswoman said it was the first time she'd ever even heard of one.
Clark County Sheriff Gene A. Kelly, who gets to use the services of a state helicopter annually to scour for marijuana at no cost, said there's no incentive for his office to get a drone.
"If I needed a helicopter," he said, "I could probably get one here in 30 minutes or less."
For some area residents, like Springfielder Peggy Jenkins, it's just another sign of technology running amok.
"It's enough to see my house on Google Maps to the point that I can almost tell what day of the week the picture was taken," she said. "The more that our privacy is invaded the less freedom we have.
"We won't realize it until it's too late."
A Monmouth University poll on unmanned aerial vehicles found:
42 -- Percent of people polled were very concerned about their own privacy from law enforcement UAVs
80 -- Percent of people who support the use of UAVs for search and rescue
67 -- Percent of people opposed to the use of UAVs to issue speeding tickets
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