Here come the drones: As technology takes off, the future remains unknown

Matt Unger is careful packing and unpacking his drone out of its padded case.

Recreational drones have become extremely popular, and as Christmas approaches, it doesn’t look as if the popularity will diminish anytime soon.

However, not all operators are aware of the issues and concerns associated with drones. Drone privacy and restrictions have been a hot-button topic amongst drone owners and operators.

In July 2015, Kentucky resident William Meredith was arrested for shooting down a drone that was flying over his property. The case was eventually dismissed, but it brought up many questions about drone privacy and the legal issues surrounding drone use across the country, including in Ohio.

What is a drone, and how do you get one?

The Federal Aviation Administration expects a million drones will be sold this holiday season and announced rules for the registry of drones.

A drone is an unmanned remote controlled aircraft, but in the consumer market, the name has also come to mean a four-bladed helicopter. A fiscal report by Parrot, a leading drone maker, said the consumer market for drones has tripled since last year.

This year, many retail stores included drone sales in their Black Friday ads, including Target, Best Buy, Walmart and J.C. Penney. Prices for these drones start at $25 and currently can be purchased and flown by anyone.

Taylor Suchan, a drone owner from Peninsula, Ohio, got a drone as gift from his grandfather and said he thinks people’s privacy is the biggest deterrent from consumers buying drones.

“If you get drones with cameras, people are going to think they are being spied on, especially if you don’t regulate them,” he said.

The FAA’s task force released its suggestions, which includes users must be at least 13 years old and register drones 8.5 oz. or more, which includes many toy drones, weighing less than a can of soda.

The FAA task force’s suggestions are not yet law but will be part of future drone legislation.

Although drones are often used recreationally, they are also used in various industries.

Farmers use drones to get aerial views of their fields and crops for cheaper than using planes and helicopters.

Fire departments are also using drones to fly above fires to determine where they are hottest and how they are spreading. Departments also use drones in search and rescue operations on terrain emergency vehicles cannot access to search for missing people.

Restrictions and registration

The popularity of consumer drones has raised questions on what drone owners can and can’t do.

There are currently few rules regulating consumer drone use because it is so new. These rules include drones cannot be flown near crowds or within five miles of an airplane or airport or higher than 400 feet.

“People don’t understand (drones) and aren’t educated about them yet,” said Blake Stringer, a Kent State aviation professor and lead faculty for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). “All they hear about are these instances where people aren’t doing the right thing with them.”

The FAA is currently leading a public outreach campaign to promote safe and responsible use of unmanned aircraft systems, according to its website. It developed No Drone Zones, where drone owners from across the U.S. can see where they can and can’t fly their drones, as well as register airspace.

“There will be some kind of educational or pilot requirement for owners,” Stringer said. “Owners will be aware of the airspace that they can operate in.”

In 2014, the FAA partnered with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and the Academy of Model Aeronautics to create the Know Before You Fly education campaign. The campaign’s goal is to educate drone users on safety and restrictions.

“The Know Before You Fly campaign really covers…the things you need to make sure that you are not doing to keep yourself out of trouble,” Estrin said.

Stringer said the administration can only do so much because of the advances drones are continuing to make, but the FAA plans to have the registry completed in the next few weeks.

“The FAA is trying to regulate an industry that has yet to be regulated,” he said.

Ohio is working to regulate drone use as well.

Ohio House Bill 228, if passed, could cause drone operators who fly without permission or violated privacy to be arrested.

Drone privacy violations would fall under the same category as crimes like aggravated rioting, disorderly conduct and inciting to violence.

Photographer Matt Unger invested in a $4,000 drone to get a new angle in his business. Unger knows that if HB 228 passes, he would have to keep a close eye on his drone to avoid getting in trouble. Overall, he said he feels confident and educated enough in drone operation to steer clear of jail time.

A privacy issue

“The privacy thing is complicated,” said Joe Vacek, an associate professor of aviation at the University of North Dakota. “It divides itself out into two major realms.”

The first area of drone privacy involves the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held U.S. citizens do not have Fourth Amendment rights in cases regarding drones. People have argued drones give law enforcement “eyes in the sky,” which, according to some, is unreasonable.

Vacek said he used to have the same opinion, but he now disagrees.

“The expectation of privacy is diminished because cameras, especially on mobile devices and now airborne ones, are becoming common,” he said.

The second major realm of drone privacy is the civil privacy of data.

Data and information about people is gathered online and aggregated, and that data is not always accurate.

“Allowing that data to be collected so easily using drones as a mobile gathering platform, but not counterbalancing that with any sort of civil right to correct that or challenge that really has serious social implications,” Vacek said.

Matt Mishak, a municipal prosecutor in the city of Elyria who is on the board for the Northern Ohio Unmanned Aircraft System Association, said both the public and drone operators need to make adjustments to better understand the privacy issue.

“The fact is that there’s no reasonable expectation of privacy in your backyard from public airspace,” Mishak said. “The public needs to understand that this is public airspace up there, and just because somebody’s flying a drone, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re nefarious and they’re going to be causing harm or doing something bad.”

Mishak, who also co-founded a company called Dronewerx, uses drones for aerial photography.

If there are people nearby when he’s taking photos, he said he takes time to explain what he is doing with the drone and has had positive experiences.

“On the other hand, if you show up and you start flying a drone around and people don’t understand it and you’re not talking to people, I think that causes immediate suspicion and fear,” Mishak said. “Just a little bit of communication goes a long way.”

Another reason behind the complexity of drone privacy is how quickly drone technology changes and evolves. 

“Technology is changing so rapidly that we’re playing legal catch-up,” said Sam Estrin, who is on the board of advisers for Drone Universities, a drone ground school in California. “Because we’re playing legal catch-up, you’re finding drone operators in situations where the law provides no coverage one way or the other, so there’s a lot of room for interpretation.”