Eyes in the Sky: Drones Coming to a City Near You

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Flying robots equipped with cameras and other capabilities may soon become common sights in the sky.  Drones have the ability to open doors for new efficient ways of doing business. But they also raise privacy and other concerns.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan introduced most Americans to drones, unmanned airplanes capable of monitoring people and places from high in the sky. 

Today dozens of government agencies are authorized to use drones in the United States and in 2015, American airspace will be opened to commercial drones. Some experts predict 30,000 of them will be flying in American airspace by the end of the decade.

It's like something out of a science fiction novel.

"It is," said Michael Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an organization representing more than 7,500 drone enthusiasts in the U.S. And at least 50 other countries.

The organization has been around for more than 40 years. Drone technology has been in the making since the Vietnam War.

Understanding Drone Technology

Today drones can be as small as a hummingbird and larger than a jet liner, outfitted with everything from cameras to infrared technology to weapons.

"This technology is literally an extension of the eyes, the ears and the hands of the human being," Tosacano explained. "If you can think of any dirty, dangerous or difficult mission that exists, or even a dull one, these systems do it very, very well."

Jobs for drones seem endless, from capturing 360 degree images of real estate to monitoring and spraying crops.  Some police departments already use them and advocates point to the Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent manhunt as an example of how drones can improve public safety.

"When you're trying to cover a sports venue that's more than 26 miles long, you don't have that many policemen even in a big city like Boston," Steven Bucci, a senior fellow with the Heritage Foundation, told CBN News. 

"Having drones, rather than big giant manned aircraft to try and cover that area to watch to make sure that no one is doing anything illegal or dangerous would have been very helpful," he said.

Peeping Drones?

However, use by law enforcement is controversial.  The American Civil Liberties Union and other privacy advocates warn drones will allow for "pervasive surveillance" in a way that could "eventually eliminate the privacy Americans enjoy in their movements and activities."
 
They also warn of discriminatory targeting of Americans who challenge the status quo, pointing to historic institutional abuses during the Civil Rights Movement and other times of political conflict and social turmoil.

Still, it's not just the use of drones by law enforcement agencies that has some people feeling anxious.    For less than $300 anyone can buy one outfitted with a camera and controllable with a smart phone. It's also pretty easy to create your own with a hobby aircraft kit -- the kinds of machines that could operate as virtual peeping toms.

Addressing the 'What Ifs'

The "what ifs" of the technology are prompting some state governments to take preemptive action.  Thirty-nine states have introduced legislation dealing with drones. Six legislatures have passed bills from moratoriums on their use to a resolution commending the industry.

Toscano is careful not to use the word "drone."

"Most people when they hear the word "drone" they think military," he explained. "They think hostile and they also think weaponized and that is a misconception. The FAA today says that no aircraft, manned or unmanned, will deploy any weapon from any aircraft and that is the rule."

But what if someone tries to take it over in American airspace? 

"One of the major issues that has to be tested [is] to make sure that someone can't either hack into it or be able to cause the unintended consequence of having multiple signals being passed and causing a disruption," he said.

There are disagreements over whether the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects Americans from unreasonable searches that could come from an eye in the sky.

"I have confidence that our judicial review process would work and will settle that gray area that's left in the middle and we'll settle it with a correct balance of security and civil liberties." Bucci said.

Time will judge the benefits and risks, but one thing is guaranteed: the technology isn't going back into the box. By the year 2017, the drone industry is expected to employ at least 70,000 people with an economic impact of nearly $14 billion.

The sky is the limit.

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Jennifer Wishon

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Jennifer Wishon is the White House correspondent for CBN News based in the network’s Washington, D.C. Bureau.  Before taking over the White House beat, Jennifer covered Capitol Hill and other national news, from the economy to the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Follow Jennifer on Twitter @JenniferWishon and "like" her at Facebook.com/JennWishon.