3D Robotics

The Verge on domestic drones


Good piece in The Verge on policy and legal challenges presented by the spread of domestic drones

Calm before the swarm: domestic drones are here, but the law's still catching up

An explosion of advanced flying vehicles is about to hit the skies, but regulation lags way behind technology


There is little disagreement in the drone community that laws haven’t kept pace with the evolving technology. "Some of the uses are going to be scary," says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU. "There is a technology called ARGUS which can view an entire city at once." The system, named for the hundred-eyed giant of Greek myth, can track the movements of every vehicle and person in a fifteen square mile radius. "It saves that data and so it has a real potential to build up a database of people’s comings and goings," says Stanley. "We don’t believe people should live in a society where the police can watch you at all times just in case you commit a crime."

But advocates for this budding industry say that it’s the laws around privacy which should change, rather than instituting new legislation aimed specifically at drones. "The fact that drones are capable of doing a lot of aerial surveillance at low cost wouldn’t be that big a deal, but for the fact that privacy law largely isn’t up to the task," says Ryan Calo, a professor of law at the University of Washington.

Calo points to cases like Florida vs Riley, where police used a helicopter to see into a greenhouse through missing panels on a roof, spotted marijuana plants, then used that as evidence to obtain a warrant. The Supreme Court ruled that the aerial search didn’t violate the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights, because citizens can have no reasonable expectation of privacy of anything viewable from a public vantage. "That kind of doctrine will likely be applied to drones as well," said Calo.

The Virginia House and Senate recently passed a bill banning the use of drones by government and law enforcement for the next two years, and it’s now awaiting the governor’s signature. "I think there’s a sense of urgency," Donald McEachin, the Democratic state senator in Virginia who introduced this legislation, told the Daily Beast. "I think it’s important to get ahead on issues like these before they get out of control. We can imagine the problems that drones will bring in the future. I believe when the Founding Fathers wrote the Fourth Amendment, they never envisioned a low rider that could sit over your house and see things and hear things."

Another member of the Democratic caucus, speaking anonymously, joked to The Vergethat, "This legislation brought out supporters from the Tea Party and the ACLU. When those folks line up on the same side, you know it’s either a damn good idea, or the end times are here."

But Calo says the fatal flaw with legislation like the Virginia bill is that it is narrowly aimed at flying drones. "Why draft a bill that specifically regulates robots which fly through the air? Then it doesn’t pertain to the new machine someone invents that climbs up walls instead. The cameras are going to keep getting better. What needs to change are the privacy laws."

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  • This all stems from the major corporations' lobbyists and big government who's goal is to increase profit and stifle competition.  I'm a huge fan of capitalism, but I can tell you, capitalism, small business, and advancement of technology suffers when big government starts regulating every little thing in this economy.  I understand regulations for safety concerns, but when you make it impossible for an average Joe to take pictures from the air and sell them, manned or unmanned, something has to give...and it's not going to be Joe.  We The People need to take back control of this country.  Get rid of the cold-blooded bureaucrats and replace them with red-blooded Americans who know what its like to work for a living.

  • Moderator

    Gary, I agree with training and safety, that is the primary issue but the problem is being caused by the ambiguity related to the hobby/business use.

    RC pilots have been flying for many years let us say "close to the limit of LOS", gliders at 3000' is easy. large planes at 3/4 mile is easy. both of these activities are FAA legal as long as its a Hobby activity. I can put a camera on a plane and take pictures.All OK .  BUT as soon as I put the same camera on the same plane and take the same picture and SELL it this makes me a criminal. I see a pronblem with that situation that your FAA / government need to fix.

    As a long time RC flier and now a UAV operator I want to stay within the law and I would welcome the opportunity to take a correctly formatted, useful training course to achieve certification. BUT I dont want or need to take the whole medical, flying instruction course for a PPL. most of that is not relevant. I want to develope my UAV business correctly and within the law.

  • Moderator

    Hi Hunter

    You are right, must get me some new glasses. So if I jump off a table I need approval from the FAA and a pilot licence?. sounds good to me. I


  • Dwgsparky,

    That's 16 inches above ground! 16 inches! Everything above my shins is regulated by the FAA.

  • "Heck, small drones wouldn't even show up on a radar." would not be to sure about that one...
    If they can detect . SuperSonic TennisBalls  I doubt that they have troubles showing drones.. 

    (does make you wonder who is hitting those tennisballs up to supersonic speeds though..)

  • Moderator

    Make it a minimum to take PPL air law in whatever country you are flying in. - Former RAF ATC ;-)

  • The proble with drones is where drones and real planes can meet. As stated drones might not show up on radar but if I find one with a small plane like a PA-27 It will hurt both planes, and I would care about the one I am riding in.

    The best solution I can think of is education. Don't fly a drone in contolled air space for step one. So you need to know what is controlled and un-controlled.

  • Heck, small drones wouldn't even show up on a radar. Referred to as "primary targets", small primaries are usually filtered out as they're usually birds, etc. You'll occasionally see large flocks of birds, like migrating geese, but that's about it for the small stuff. -Former FAA ATC

  • Moderator

    Anyone notice the annotation on the chart "FAA Jurisdiction starts 16' above the ground"

    I have never seen that refered to before, does anyone know the origin of this statement. I have a hand launch glider that goes WAY above that height. or is it OK to fly drones BELOW 16feet. ?? and litererally keep below the FAA radar!!

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