Amateur Drone Use Raises Questions About Safety and Privacy

A lot of people are freaked out by the thought that we could see tens of thousands of drones flying over the U.S. in a few years, and most of the concern has focused on civil liberty and privacy issues.

Maybe we should be a bit more worried about whether the dudes operating those remote-controlled unmanned aircraft know what the hell they're doing. Especially since these things can now be bought by anyone for less than $300 on the Internet, no questions asked.

Now, if you wanted to fly one of these things at a model aircraft field, like the one operated in Farmington by the Central Connecticut Radio Control Club (CCRCC), you'd have to take lessons from an instructor and pass a test.

That clearly isn't what's happening out there now with a lot of hot-shot pseudo-pilot-wannabes:

• Earlier this month, a three-pound drone helicopter with a video camera aboard took off from a Manhattan high-rise, slammed into several buildings, and ended up crash landing on the street below just feet from a businessman walking by. No one was hurt, and no one's been arrested despite apparent violation of federal rules governing the use of drones over populated areas.

• At about the same time, another little remote-controlled aircraft crunched into Australia's Sydney Harbor Bridge just days before a visit from Prince Harry. No damage was done (except to the four-rotor "quad-copter") but counter-terrorism units went on high alert.

• In August, a drone was taking video of the "Great Bull Run" event in Virginia (bulls chasing people down a fenced area). It swerved and crashed into the stands, causing minor injuries to several people.

Rich Hanson says the Federal Aviation Administration needs to start thinking about how to protect the general public from these wild-eyed amateurs. Hanson is spokesman for the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a national organization of people in love with flying model aircraft.

He says the federal government is right now working on safety requirements for the use of drones for commercial purposes, by public agencies like the police, and for "recreational" types flying traditional model planes and helicopters.

The problem, according to Hanson, is the increasing number of people who fall in the "gray area" of non-commercial users that don't really understand how to fly the unmanned aircraft they're buying and have no intention of joining a club to learn.

"There are no restrictions, not on recreational purchases," Hanson says. The AMA is now urging federal officials to try and figure out how to keep these bozos from injuring other people, damaging property or interfering with actual aircraft.

In 2007, the FAA issued guidelines restricting the use of unmanned aircraft in U.S. skies. You can fly drones for recreational purposes, for example, but not higher than 400 feet and not over populated areas.

The commercial use of drones is also prohibited right now, but Congress has given the FAA a September 2015 deadline to put in place a system for commercial drones. (Surprise surprise: The Christian Science Monitor recently reported that the feds are behind schedule on that one.)

Public agencies like police are being allowed to use drones (unarmed, at least for now), and the FAA does issue special permits to researchers and aircraft manufacturers to experiment with new models and to see what uses drones can be put to.

Drone advocates insist unmanned aircraft can do all kinds of cool, beneficial stuff, from monitoring forest fires and environmental monitoring, to showing aerial shots to help sell real estate.

Federal experts are estimating the U.S. could see between 10,000 and 30,000 drones flying through our airspace by 2020.

Those numbers and the potential for invasion of privacy and violations of civil rights have scared a lot of people, including the folks in Deer Trail, Colo. They recently began considering a local ordinance to issue hunting permits that would allow people to shoot down drones. (The FAA says they can't do that because it's against federal law.)

Remote-controlled aircraft have been around for more than a century now, says Hanson. But computer technology and miniaturization are rapidly changing the game.

Model aircraft folks have developed a whole set of safety rules for flying their reproductions of the Red Baron's Fokker triplane or even model jet aircraft.

David Grainger is the former training coordinator for the CCRCC. He says no one is allowed to fly their unmanned aircraft solo at the club's Farmington field until they've had instruction and demonstrated that they can control their aircraft.