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Technical advances - and questionable use - are fast accelerating the need for policies regarding the unmanned future of our skies
Drones behaving badly: Dark skies ahead
Like it or not, the Age of the Drone is upon us, as the skies are increasingly crowded with UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) used for recreation, photography, filmmaking, commercial applications, and scientific research. Ongoing initiatives by heavyweights like Amazon and Google suggest that cargo transport and package delivery are just around the corner.
As UAV technology advances and expands, public policy issues around safety, privacy, and regulation are increasingly becoming a concern. Earlier this year, both the FAA and the White House issued new domestic directives on commercial and government drone use. Yes, the technology holds great promise, but there's a clear and present downside to having endless remote-piloted and robotic aircraft swarming overhead, as the following incidents involving drones behaving badly clearly show.
In January, an event on the U.S.-Mexico border confirmed what many observers had suspected -- that drones are getting into the drug-smuggling business. Police in Tijuana, Mexico, reported that an aerial drone carrying six pounds of methamphetamine crashed into a supermarket parking lot, apparently en route to the U.S.-Mexican border.
The drone was a commercial model UAV widely used for filmmaking and designed to carry an underslung video camera. Instead, smugglers affixed the drug cargo with plastic bags and tape. But the bad guys evidently misjudged the UAV's carrying capacity. The meth was estimated to have a street value of about $48,000. This drone got caught, but the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency estimates drones are making more than 150 successful deliveries a year over the Mexican border.
In a variation on the theme, prison authorities have started implementing programs to guard against another accelerating dilemma: drones smuggling contraband into prisons. As with border smuggling, the business of moving contraband into jails has inspired criminal entrepreneurs to develop genuinely creative approaches. In the past, smugglers have used everything from cannons to catapults to deliver packages over borders and prison yard walls.
A spate of incidents have made news in both the United States and Europe. In 2013, four people in Georgia were charged with using a tiny drone to drop small packets of rolling tobacco into a prison yard, piloting the copter from the woods nearby. Recent cases in South Carolina and Great Britain revealed more ambitious operations, with larger drones dropping deliveries of marijuana, mobile phones, and weapons. Among the solutions proposed: signal-jamming devices targeting specific frequencies or simple low-tech netting over prison yards.
White House intruder
If recent news reports are any indication, the White House lawn in Washington, D.C., is curiously busy, thought it's also one of the most heavily surveilled patches of real estate on the planet. Between the fence-jumpers and the Secret Service party animals, the President's yard seems like the front lawn of a college fraternity circa 1973.
A misbehaving drone joined the fun back in January, when a remotely piloted quadcopter crashed onto the White House grounds in the middle of the night. The next day, the drone's abashed pilot (an intelligence agency employee, it turns out) confessed that he had lost control of the DJI Phantom quadcopter while flying it around his Washington, D.C., apartment -- at 3 a.m. No charges were filed against the pilot, who later apologized to the Obama family.
Panic in France
Of course, the idea of drones buzzing around in secure areas and no-fly zones is serious business, indeed. Military and law-enforcement agencies worldwide are developing protocols and policies in regard to the issue, another classic case of public policy trying to catch up with fast-moving technology.
Authorities in France are still investigating an alarming series of unidentified drone flyovers across the county in the past year, including sightings over government buildings, military installations, embassies, and even the Eiffel Tower. The nighttime flights appear to be coordinated, but their purpose is still a mystery -- according to official statements. In March, a French official confirmed that at least 60 such drone sightings have been reported since October 2014.
Devotees of classic 1970s thrillers will remember director John Frankenheimer's film "Black Sunday," in which terrorists threaten to kill everyone at the Super Bowl by flying an exploding blimp into the crowded stadium. Drone technology has made a scaled-down version of such a scenario a huge concern for security personnel at large sporting events.
In 2014, the FAA investigated a frighteningly long list of incidents in which amateur pilots flew camera-toting drones over large outdoor sporting events. Baseball stadiums and NASCAR races have been buzzed, but NFL and college football games have seen the most problems. Last year, the FAA updated a ban on airplane flights over stadiums by adding a prohibition on unmanned aircraft, with violators subject to fines and up to one year in prison.
Private eyes in the sky?
Then there are the instances where drone behavior isn't so much potentially dangerous as just kinda creepy. For example, recent reports suggest that drones are finding gainful employment in the private eye business -- used by self-employed detectives to spy for their clients on suspect spouses or employees. One private investigator in California recently described her operation, in which she purchases camera drones from high-end toy stores and hires gamer kids to pilot them on stakeouts.
The law around this issue is terminally confusing, with a tangle of federal, state, and local statutes applying to potential air space regulations and privacy laws. In North Carolina, for instance, it's illegal to use a drone for surveillance of a person or private property. Other states have introduced legislation extending property rights into airspace, making drone flyovers an act of trespassing. Court watchers expect more comprehensive rules and regulations in the near future. Meanwhile, maybe we can insist that private eye drones have to wear little fedoras and trench coats?
We probably should have seen this one coming: Police in both urban and rural areas are getting an increasing number of complaints about hovering aerial drones pointing cameras into fenced yards or windows. In other words, our brave new world of technology has produced yet another worry: the peeping-tom drone. The Seattle neighborhood of Capitol Hill was recently plagued by a voyeuristic drone pilot who aimed his quadcopter camera into the upper-story windows of apartment buildings.
Rather predictably, the issue is also a growing concern for people in the naturist community. Several reports from California and Florida describe camera drones swooping down on nude beaches and resorts, with subsequent videos being posted online in the sketchier neighborhoods of the Internet. A group of New York City filmmakers has made an interesting response video (inauspiciously titled "Drone Boning") on the issue of voyeuristic drones and surveillance creep. This probably goes without saying, but it's decidedly NSFW.
The art of the prank
The lighter side of misbehaving drones: The vast majority of amateur drone pilots have no ill intent at all. Early adopters of the technology have proven to be mostly noodlers and hobbyists who like to tinker with their toys in the garage. And many display an admirable creativity and can-do American spirit when it comes to the venerable tradition of pranking.
Misbehaving drones in this arena are more mischievous than malicious. In a Halloween video that went viral a couple of years back, comedian and online prankster Tom Mabe constructed a flying Grim Reaper and scared the bejeezus out of neighborhood joggers and kids. The Reaper was actually a store-bought model towed through the air, with fishing line, by a heavy-duty hexacopter drone. A follow-up behind-the-scenes video shows how it was done.
The Dark Side
Tragically, we must report that some misbehaving drones have succumbed entirely and crossed over to the Galactic Empire and Dark Side of the Force. To wit, this "Star Wars" TIE Interceptor drone from the UAV hobbyist and mad genius known as Olivier C, who also brought us the drone Millennium Falcon.
Olivier built both drones using lightweight foam shells mounted onto his own highly customized "Prophecy 335" quadcopter. In the spirit of DIY maker culture, he's generously provided online blueprints and step-by-step instructions online. I think we can all agree that, as a society, we should be able to pay people like this somehow -- maybe take a percentage from sports agents and hedge fund managers and redistribute properly.