WASHINGTON – Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee expressed concern on Wednesday about the domestic use of drones, saying the often-tiny, unmanned flying devices could carry undesirable consequences regarding the right to privacy.
Republicans and Democrats acknowledged that drones offer law enforcement a potentially valuable tool that could even be used by farmers to survey their acreage at a relatively inexpensive cost.
But the device, also known as a UAS, an acronym for unmanned aircraft system, also has the ability to travel nearly undetected into areas where it is unwanted – people’s homes or businesses – and record private information, making it seem like something out of 1984, a novel by George Orwell.
“While there may be many valuable uses for this new technology, the use of unmanned aircraft raises serious concerns about the impact on the constitutional and privacy rights of American citizens,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee chairman.
That view was supported by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member, who said using drones to essentially spy on people without their knowledge is “contrary to the notion of what it means to live in a free society.”
“We need to make sure we have sufficient legal safeguards to promote innovation while protect the general public,” Grassley said.
The drones in question differ markedly from the unmanned airplanes used so extensively by the American military for surveillance and combat operations overseas. They are smaller, lightweight, and, like their military cousins, unmanned. The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that as many as 30,000 drones will be operating in American airspace by the end of the decade.
One UAS under development reportedly would be the size of a mosquito.
The domestic use of drones provides a dilemma for lawmakers. The device already has proved its worth.
The Department of Homeland Security, through Customs and Border Protection, already operates modified, unarmed drones to patrol rural parts of the nation’s borders. They also are being used to support drug-interdiction efforts by various law-enforcement agencies.
Benjamin Miller, the Unmanned Aircraft Program manager for the Mesa County, Colo., Sheriff’s Office, told the panel that his office maintains two small, battery-operated unmanned aircraft systems – a Draganflyer X6, a backpack-sized helicopter that can fly for 15 minutes, and a Falcon UAV, an airplane that can fly for an hour and fits in the trunk of a car. Both are fitted with cameras.
The drones have flown 185 hours in just over 40 missions over the past four years on two small batteries. They have been used to provide a vital view of a church fire, locate the body of a missing woman, and conduct an aerial survey of the county landfill to determine the increase in waste over the previous year – a task that once cost almost $10,000 which was completed at a cost of $200 by the drone.
“While unmanned aircraft cannot recover a stranded motorist in a swollen river, they can provide an aerial view for a fraction of the cost of manned aviation,” Miller said. “I estimate unmanned aircraft can complete 30 percent of the missions of manned aviation for two percent of the cost. The Mesa County Sheriff’s Office projects direct cost of unmanned flight at just $25 an hour as compared to the cost of manned aviation that can range from $250 to thousands of dollars per hour. It actually costs just one cent to charge a flight battery for either of our systems.”