When we think of drones we think of flying killing machines in Pakistan. But as the US tries to write rules for the technology, people are realizing that very different kinds of drones could change the way we live.
Probably the best illustration of the vivid fears and awesome powers associated with drones was delivered on the floor of the US Senate on March 13, when Senator Rand Paul held his momentous 13-hour filibuster to highlight that "no American should be killed by a drone without first being charged with a crime."
His oratory marathon compelled US Attorney General Eric Holder to write a letter to Paul assuring him that the US president did not have the authority to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil with a weaponized drone.
Whether overblown or not, Paul's concerns reflect the public's perception of drones as lethal robots hovering high above remote areas in far-away lands under often dubious legal rules. While drones have regularly - and correctly - been portrayed this way in the press, their use as killing machines is only the tip of the iceberg.
In fact, the narrow focus on the military potential of drones tends to underestimate and obfuscate the much broader and much more realistic capabilities of the technology that must be addressed. And unlike Senator Paul's question for Attorney General Holder, most of the questions raised by the rapid advances in the field of drone technology cannot be answered with a simple yes or no.
Drones can come in different sizes and shapes and with diverse technical features. The smallest drone is the coin-sized Dutch-built Delfly Micro, one of the largest, the Israeli Heron, the size of a Boeing 737.
"Theoretically every plane can be a drone," explains Missy Cummings, who advises the US Navy on drones and is director of the Humans and Automation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute Technology (MIT).
While the US military's Predator and Reaper are technologically still the most sophisticated drones, a good example of what non-lethal drones can do is a robotic helicopter called K-Max. Basically, K-Max is an air-borne work horse. Since 2011 two K-Max delivery drones in use in Afghanistan have transported more than three million pounds of cargo - all without a pilot.
And that's just the beginning, says Cummings:
"In the research world we have had helicopter drones that have been able to pick out their own landing sites and were able to land themselves without any help on the ground."
The technology is there, it just hasn't been operationalized yet, adds Cummings.
The most basic function a drone - or an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) as they are also called - can perform is what is known as remote sensing, that is gathering information about objects without physical contact. Unlike a piloted plane or helicopter drones can remain airborne for long hours, hovering over specified objects or tracking targets incessantly while collecting valuable data for real-time or archival use at the same time.
These essential qualities of drones - doing work that is dull, dangerous or dirty - for a fraction of a price that it would cost to hire a pilot and a plane makes UAS so attractive for governmental, commercial and scientific ventures.
Law enforcement agencies could use them to monitor traffic and crime hotspots. Real estate developers will want them to survey prospective building sites or residential areas. Film makers could use them for aerial shots. Environmentalists and scientists could deploy them to monitor illegal waste disposal or approaching hurricanes.
That's why after pressure from business interests, the US aviation authority FAA has been tasked by Congress to come up with a regulation framework that will open up the US airspace for drones by 2015. Currently, the commercial use of drones is all but prohibited; only a small number of permits for non-governmental use are issued by the FAA, usually for research and development projects.
But that is about to change. The FAA predicts 10,000 active small (under 55 pounds) UAS within five years, 25,000 within 10 years and 30,000 by 2030.
And that is just drones that fall under the auspices of federal regulation.
Drones used for recreational purposes by hobbyists currently are exempted from FAA regulation. To fall in that category they must be flown under 400 feet, a pilot must always be able to take manual control of the UAS and it can not be flown in densely populated areas.
Recreational drones are already a booming business. As the former Wired editor turned drone entrepreneur Chris Anderson told the New York Times recently, his company 3D Robotics sells 7,500 UAVs a quarter. That's the total number of drones currently operated by the American military.
Drones for the masses
To own your own drone, you don't need a Pentagon-like budget. A basic I-Phone or I-Pod-controlled Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 Quadricopter costs just $299 at Internet retailer Amazon. More advanced drones sell for $500 to $600.
The fact that drones will become a mass phenomenon or as Chris Anderson put it, "the sky's going to be dark with these things," whenever the FAA finally comes up with its rules for UAS has privacy rights experts worried.
"Drones are designed and built to carry some of the most invasive surveillance equipment on the market, such as automated license plate readers and facial recognition technology," said Amie Stepanovich, director of the Domestic Surveillance Project with the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in Washington via e-mail.
Joseph Lorenzo Hall, senior staff technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) in Washington, provides this example to highlight the potential power of drone technology. "Drones will be able to do stuff that is very sophisticated like synthetic aperture radar (SAR) which allows extremely fine grained mapping of terrain." These kinds of systems, explains Hall, allow you to notice whether in some one's front yard a small children's toy has been moved three meters to the left or right from kilometers away.
While privacy advocates are concerned about the possible erosion of personal rights through the advent of drones, all of them also recognize and laud their potential benefits.
"Surveillance is not itself a bad thing, especially when we call it ‘transparency,'" notes Patrick Lin, director of the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University. "So civilian drones could be used for productive research purposes, such as tracking thunderstorms, wildlife migration, and other events not practical or safe for humans to follow."
Still, the rise of drones as a common feature in our daily life could be a game changer for what we consider privacy.
"Drones will likely change our expectation of privacy, which defines the limits to our right to privacy, at least in the US," predicts Lin. Compared to Europe, privacy rights in the US are largely limited to the private home or to certain sectors of society like health care and finance. "There is no common basis for privacy protection unlike the EU where there is an understanding that privacy is a fundamental right and you can regulate from that upwards," says Hall.
Since drone activities have been conducted almost exclusively by government authorities until now, people often focus their attention on Washington as the main threat for privacy.
That however, is not necessarily, true.
"It's not the governments that you have to worry about," says Cummings. "It's the Googles of the world. It is all those people around the world you want to do those kinds of mappings and maybe sell that data for other reasons."
Rules for eyes in the sky
To prohibit limitless prying and spying from the air by thousands of drones, privacy advocates are demanding clear rules for UAS.
First, says, Hall, drones should have a data collection statement that details their purpose and the kinds of information they gather. Second, they should have an identification number and automatically transmit an identification signal on radio frequencies. Third, via their identification number people would be able to look up online exactly what kind of drones are airborne, know what kind of information they collect and eventually even produce maps of drone flight paths.
Federal regulators still have until 2015 to come up with drone rules, but some local and state governments don't want to wait that long. In February, Charlottesville in Virginia, became the first US city to ban drones for two years.
While these bans are mostly symbolic and would be overruled by a federal drone law, they highlight the anxiety that surrounds drones and doubts whether the FAA - an agency much more experienced in dealing with safety than privacy issues - can produce drone legislation that addresses privacy concerns.
Those concerns are real, agrees Joanne Gabrynowicz, director of the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law at the University of Mississippi. "But we can come up with a regulatory system. If we did it for satellites I am confident we can do it for drones. But it will be difficult and there are a lot of interests involved."