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Domestic drones will put privacy to the test

Thu, 01/16/2014 - 9:59am
Chris Warner, Executive Editor

Each Christmas, I am spared the angst many online shoppers feel as they anticipate the on-time arrivals of their purchases. (ECN HQ happens to be next door to a shopping mall.) But I couldn’t help but notice the news stories of late package deliveries to frustrated online shoppers, delaying shipments that were scheduled to arrive before Christmas until after the big day. No doubt some of the disappointed customers remembered seeing Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com CEO, reveal on 60 Minutes that the company is testing drones to deliver the packages. In addition to being amazed, I’ll bet they look forward to a day when drones can indeed take to U.S. skies to perform common tasks such as deliver packages on time.

The latest indication that drones may be coming to a neighborhood near you in a few years’ time came via a December 30 announcement by the FAA that six groups have been named to host and test drones in nine states. Each entity will conduct tests for a different area of research such as safety standards, air traffic control, state monitoring, collision avoidance, airworthiness, test modes and technical risks for drones. The FAA has a goal of safe drone flight by the end of 2015.

With just two years to go, it is imperative that states make privacy legislation a priority before we begin to hear stories of overreach by both law enforcement and private entities. As I wrote in June, you can bet someone with political motives will order a drone to circle a private backyard. Or, that drone may perhaps be employed by a private citizen to spy on, say, a former spouse or to escalate a dispute between neighbors. Businesses, I’m sure, would use drones to learn about or lure potential customers as more creative uses are hatched.

According to a recent USA Today story (http://usat.ly/1cCiYUm), the economic benefits of domestic drone use will be big. It notes The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International has projected “the industry will create 100,000 jobs and generate $82 billion in economic activity in the decade after the aircraft are allowed in general airspace.”

Clearly, drones in the domestic airspace will be the way of the future, and in most cases drones will do ordinary tasks, like deliver packages or monitor crops, quickly and efficiently. And law enforcement would certainly do well to use drones to locate missing persons and go places where it may too dangerous for personnel. But while business and government join in the gold rush that domestic drone use will offer, we must make sure freedoms and privacy don’t fly the coop as this technology takes off.

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