Model aircraft owners drawn into privacy debate on drones

By Ben Wolfgang -The Washington Times

CROWNSVILLE, Md. - Steve Barnett has been flying unmanned aerial systems for more than 30 years — long before the word “drone” started making global headlines.

But now, the 65-year-old Army veteran and model-airplane enthusiast finds himself answering new questions as his hobby gets dragged into a white-hot national debate.

“At no time has the word ‘surveillance’ ever been used. That’s not the reason for us to be out here,” said Mr. Barnett, an instructor with the 80-member Chesapeake Bay Radio Control Club, as he took a break from flying his craft over the group’s sprawling field near Annapolis.

Even just a few years ago, model pilots such as Mr. Barnett wouldn’t have had to address the issue of drones or the Fourth Amendment. That’s quickly changing because of public distress about anything that flies overhead without a human pilot on board.

Mr. Barnett has kept an eye on the rise of the domestic drone industry; more importantly, he is keenly aware of how the cutting-edge crafts are inspiring new federal legislation, state privacy protection laws and other regulations.

“It’ll eventually impact us,” he said, as one of his students worked on a model plane nearby.

A thin, blurry line

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Comment by Jack Crossfire on April 10, 2013 at 1:44am

What does this have to do with the DJI Phantom?

Comment by Brian on April 10, 2013 at 5:45am
Not a thing, other than the article states it is common for RC fliers to put cameras onboard "such as a go pro".

Comment by Gary Mortimer on April 10, 2013 at 6:09am

Yes you are right Jack I should have used a Phantom image ;-)

Comment by Scott VanFossen on April 10, 2013 at 7:52am

"While the technical differences are important, the true distinction between a  model plane and a drone stems from the motivation of the operator."

This is a very important statement in the article. It seems to me that this is the same argument being made by the pro-gun people, who are pretty much the same people trying to take away our rights to fly UAVs.

Comment by Curt Olson on April 10, 2013 at 8:16am

I read through the Minnesota anti-drone bill (about 3 pages.)  For what it's worth, this bill was introduced too late in the session to get hearings.

The stated intent of the bill is to preserve personal privacy.  The primary intent is to prevent over reaching state and local law enforcement from using drones to invade privacy.  They also disallow federal drone operations (which presumably would be higher end gear with better cameras and things that could make a big boom.)  Then they offer enough exceptions so that law enforcement can probably do whatever they want to do anyway, and the feds are going to do whatever they want no matter what the states say.

What jumped out at me was the very broad definition of drone (which was mentioned in the article).  Basically anything the moves through the air by aerodynamic forces and is unmanned is a drone.  By my reading this covers paper airplanes, model rockets, kits, balloons, along with everything else unmanned.

In addition, they clearly include any 'person' along with law enforcement and federal officials as covered by this law.

The other thing that jumped out at me is that as soon as you attach a camera to your UAV and take a picture with it of property or person without their permission, you would have committed a felony.

So apparently if I buy one of these tiny keychain cameras from ebay, tape it to a paper airplane, and my kid launches it off the back deck of our house and accidentally captures some footage of my neighbor's back yard -- they would be a felon.  But if I climb up on my roof with a 24 Mpixel DSLR and take pictures directly through his window, that's ok.

As the article says, really it's all about intent which makes writing legislation very tricky.  Perhaps this particular bill in Minnesota was submitted only for the purposes of provoking discussion and receiving feedback?

I thought the article was a very well written and touches on the important issues.  The Minnesota proposed bill definitely needs some more work.

Perhaps we need laws controlling paparazzi type photography, not laws aimed at one specific way to collect images or images collected by one particular technique.  (The bill targets both using UAV's to collect imagery and targets imagery collected by a UAV in case that distinction is important.)

Comment by bcrow on April 10, 2013 at 12:28pm

Curt- I see the same issue (definition) here in Montana;  

Montana Senate Bill 150,  New Section,  sub section 4   (b) "  "unmanned aerial vehicle" means any device that has the capability of powered or unpowered flight or hovering without a human on board, regardless of altitude, with or without a tether connecting it to the ground or another object."  (lines 25, 26, 27)

Montana SENATE BILL NO. 196 goes as far as to state;

NEW SECTION.  Section 1.  Prohibition on use of unmanned aerial vehicles -- penalty. (1) (a) A person commits the offense of unmanned aerial vehicle data collection if a person purposely or knowingly operates an unmanned aerial vehicle in or upon the premises of another for the purpose of acquiring information through the use of a sensing device that is capable of acquiring data from its surroundings, including but not limited to a camera, microphone, thermal detector, chemical detector, radiation gauge, and wireless receiver.

     (b)  Information obtained from the unlawful operation of an unmanned aerial vehicle is not admissible as evidence in any proceeding and may not be used for any purpose.   

This last section sort of raises questions in circles I deal with, in that does "for any purpose" mean habitat monitoring? and we still have not recieved an answer to that. 

Comment by Curt Olson on April 10, 2013 at 12:47pm

Chris: I'm not "talking" politics here, I'm "observing" politics that directly relate to this thread and making comments. :-)  Please, I'm not taking a side here or trying to slant one way or another.  Just making casual observances.

So in all of this I sense a small bit of politics from the perspective that George W Bush took a lot of heat for his use of military drones.  Fair or not, Obama has substantially increased the use of military drones, but most of the previous drone criticism has now evaporated with a democrat administration in charge.  I smell just a hint of republicans wanting to keep this issue alive as a political crow bar in much of this type of legislation.

The problem is that when we over legislate and over complicate, we can suddenly turn ordinary law abiding citizens into felons.  These are good people who are doing good and normal things.  We teach model rocketry in middle school.  You can buy a model rocket for < $100 that has a built in video camera.  We could be educating our kids to be felons!

I think good legislation needs to balance the concerns of privacy, freedom, safety, fairness, and probably a number of other things, not just have a hyper-one-track-focus on a particular ideological principle (such as privacy and nothing else.)

And even if we all 100% agreed on the ideological principles -- a poor design, or implementation can ruin the whole thing anyways.

I like to think in engineering terms here (which probably is a bit flawed, but I like analogies as far as you can take them.)  We might have a huge battle in the DIY drones community over which is better: ARM processors or Atmel processors.  We could beat each other up all day long with arguments from both sides plus and minus.  But at the end of the day, if the design is too complicated, it can never be implemented in a finite amount of time; and if the implementation is lousy the result is also lousy ...

So back to all this legislation.  Forget the ideology and democrats vs. republicans (that's a bit like Mac vs. PC, emacs vs. vi, fedora vs. ubuntu, perl vs. python, drupal vs. joomla, justin biever versus bon jovi, etc.)  What really really matters is that the legislation is well conceived and not overly complex, and that the chosen implementation is executed well; and I think these proposed laws need a lot of work to clear either bar.

Comment by Curt Olson on April 10, 2013 at 1:19pm

And now Florida just voted unanimously on their own similar legislation (so if it's unanimous, maybe I'm misreading the political breezes):

Comment by Curt Olson on April 10, 2013 at 1:44pm

Ok, I did try flying a drone with a camera one time, but I didn't actually press record ...

Comment by Joshua Johnson on April 10, 2013 at 1:52pm

@Curt,  Do you have a link to the Minnesota Anti-drone bill?!  As a lifelong resident of the Twin Cities area and a student in robotics and UAS this is highly concerning for me.  Time To pack up and move somewhere warm like California! :D


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