Last fall, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s department got together for a photo op showing off a new unmanned surveillance craft. The $300,000 drone did not have an auspicious debut. Minutes after take-off, the UAV lost touch with the control console and plummeted to earth, crashing into the police officers assembled for the launch. No one was hurt, because police were hanging out in their armored car (“the Bearcat”) another warzone weapon that has crept into the arsenals of local cops around the country (the Bearcat came out alright).
Civilians, however, don’t ride around in armored vehicles Mad-Max-style, so the FAA has been charged by Congress to come up with safety regulations that would prevent drones from raining from the sky or colliding with airplanes.
Meanwhile, there are no such plans underway to build legal barriers against the privacy erosions portended by cheap, versatile, unmanned aircraft — drones small enough to fly around your window or large enough to hover far above the earth, out of site but watching over miles of land.
Police enthusiasm for military weaponry (and a drone industry salivating over a new market) is driving a rapid spread of domestic law enforcement drones, which are already being used by border agents. In February, the FAA was directed to lay out guidelines opening up airspace for commercial and civil drones by 2015, at the latest; the technology is likely to be embraced by property companies, paparazzi, and totally random people who want to spy on others. (There are also many positive uses, like helping track wildfires or oil spills.)