Look, Up In The Sky! It's A Drone, Looking At You

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Unmanned aircraft — or drones — are playing a large role in U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, but they're starting to show up the the skies above the U.S. as well. Drones are already used to patrol the border with Mexico and now they may soon be coming to a police department near you.

Just consider a video on drone manufacturer AeroVironment's website: Police officers chase a suspect to his home. The suspect runs behind the house, out of sight. The officers open the trunk of their patrol car and pull out what looks like a toy model aircraft with four rotors and a video camera. They launch the aircraft, which allows them to monitor their suspect's movements through a video feed on an iPad-like tablet and, ultimately, to apprehend him.

AeroVironment calls its unmanned aircraft the Qube, and while it may look like something kids would look for under the Christmas tree, it's no toy.

"The Qube is the first solution that AeroVironment has introduced specifically targeting what we identify as the public safety market, and that's really public safety professionals like law enforcement, search and rescue, and first responders," says company vice president Steve Gitlin.

Drones — or unmanned vehicles — have been a success with the military, and companies such as AeroVironment hope to make them an increasingly common sight in this country. Gitlin says the Qube costs just a bit more than a police patrol car, making it a much less expensive alternative to a manned helicopter.

In Mesa County, Colo., the sheriff's department is testing a drone called the Dragonfly X6. Ben Miller, unmanned systems coordinator for the sheriff's office, says it's been especially useful in search operations.

"We had a lost subject in a vegetated creek bed and we were given about a mile length of that creek to search," Miller says. "We completed that search in just a little over an hour with two staff members."

Miller says a typical search using volunteers marching shoulder-to-shoulder would have taken hours. On top of that, he says there have been no bugs with the drones and they're easy to operate.

"At about 2 pounds, the safety risks to people on the ground are rather minimal," he says. "In fact it weighs less than your common Canadian goose."

While law enforcement is a big market for makers of unmanned aircraft systems — known as UAS's — there are many other potential civilian users.

Gretchen West is with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry trade group.

"Utility companies — so oil and gas — [are] using a UAS to do surveillance over a pipeline," she says, as are electrical companies wanting to watch over their electrical wires. West says drones can be used for crop-dusting and tracking livestock. They've already been used for flood mapping in North Dakota, and they could also be used for weather research.

But all those unmanned aircraft have some people a little wary. Privacy advocate Harley Geiger of the Center for Democracy and Technology says drones are basically flying video cameras.

"Drones can easily be equipped with facial recognition cameras, infrared cameras or open Wi-Fi sniffers," Geiger says. "So when people think about drones they shouldn't just think that a telephoto lens is the only feature that can raise a privacy issue."

Nor, says Geiger, is it only law enforcement that could be watching: "The paparazzi, your homeowners' association, your neighbor, a journalist can all sic drones on you as well."

Geiger says people should watch the Federal Aviation Administration, which is currently working on rules to establish standards such as how high drones can fly and what kind of training operators need. He hopes the agency will also address privacy concerns in the proposed regulations that could be released next month.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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