Increasing Drone Use Comes with Privacy, Safety Concerns

Unmanned Aircraft Vehicles (UAVs) or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs), also known as drones, have been around a lot longer than you might think. The world’s inventors and militaries first developed drone technology in the mid-1800s as balloons, torpedoes and aerial targets. Drones were used exclusively in the military until 2006, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued the first commercial drone permit in support of search efforts for survivors of natural disasters.

Since then, drone use has exploded. Law enforcement, land surveillance, wildlife tracking, search and rescue operations, disaster response, health care providers and more use drones to gather data and images or transport important cargo. Recently, a drone was even used to deliver a donated kidney to a hospital for a kidney transplant! But as the number of drones takes off, so do early warning signs of threats to safety and privacy.

Big Brother “Eye in the Sky?”

Privacy is the most commonly heard concern regarding the use of commercial and recreational drones. The FAA requires registration of UASs but does not regulate flight patterns. According to Dr. Ryan Wallace, assistant professor of Aeronautical Science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University,  “So long as the UAS operator is compliant with operational restrictions, there are no federal restrictions regarding overflight of residential areas. Furthermore, anecdotal information would suggest that the vast majority of UAS violators are not caught.”

A recent study found that people were less concerned about hobbyists, construction and real estate companies, and more concerned about drones owned by the government, military or law enforcement.  FAA regulations are designed to protect the skies, not people or property, which leaves laws on drone privacy and usage to state and local authorities. Those laws vary widely by location.

And if you think you can just knock a pesky drone out of the sky, not so fast. It is a federal crime to bring down or jam the signal of a drone or any other aircraft regulated by the FAA. Yet, creative attempts to rid the skies of drones have even included the purchase of trained birds of prey, including bald eagles, to hunt down and immobilize drones.

Safety Risks from Crashing Drones

Safety risks related to the use of small UASs include the potential for unintentional collisions with manned aircraft, other objects or even people. A drone can breach traditional security perimeters at sensitive sites (such as nuclear power plants) and at public venues (such as sports stadiums.) The FAA has also seen increased sightings of UASs flying close to aircraft at some of the country’s busiest airports and other sensitive areas.  Since late 2014, five drones have crashed onto the Golden Gate Bridge’s roadway, even though it is illegal to fly a drone in a National Park. In 2017, a drone crashed into a high-voltage wire in Mountain View and knocked out power for around 1,600 people for two hours. The U.S. military is even investigating reports that a drone recently flew close enough to be seen from the windows of Air Force One.

All drones must be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Basic Safety and Privacy Guidelines

First things first! Any new drone must be registered with the FAA. You will receive certification from the agency and must keep it with you at all times while piloting a drone. Your drone must also be marked with your certification number. Here are some other guidelines to help drone pilots keep others safe (and stay on the right side of the law!):

  • Check and follow all local laws and ordinances before flying. Click here for a list of drone laws by state and country.
  • Keep your drone within sight at all times, and use an observer to assist if needed.
  • Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations. You must see and avoid other aircraft and obstacles at all times.
  • Do not intentionally fly over unprotected people or moving vehicles, and remain at least 25 feet away from individuals and personal property.
  • Contact the airport and control tower before flying within five miles of an airport or heliport.
  • Do not fly in adverse weather conditions such as in high winds, precipitation or reduced visibility.
  • Do not fly under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Ensure that the operating environment is safe and that the operator is competent and proficient in the operation of the drone.
  • Do not fly near or over sensitive infrastructure or property, such as power stations, water treatment facilities, correctional facilities, heavily traveled roadways, government facilities, etc.
  • Do not conduct surveillance or photograph people in areas where there is an expectation of privacy without permission.