When hip-hop artist T-Pain performed in Jacksonville last week, Trey Bishop was quietly watching from 70 feet above the crowd.
Bishop, a corporal in the Jacksonville, Ala., Police Department, was working as a security guard at the concert. He’d brought along his own personal unmanned aerial vehicle — a drone, in other words — to keep an eye on concert-goers.
“If someone had passed out down there, or they needed medical help, we’d see them,” Bishop said.
Say the word “drone,” and most people think of slender flying robots, gliding over a battlefield with missiles slung under their wings. Bishop’s drone, a DJI Phantom, looks more like something your nephew found under the Christmas tree — a toy-sized, four-rotor helicopter with a GoPro camera slung underneath.
That eye in the sky, and thousands like it, are a subject of growing fascination for techies and the source of growing worry for privacy advocates. Like most states, Alabama has almost no clear rules on the use of drones, either by police or private citizens.
That may change soon. On Friday, Aug. 22, Gov. Robert Bentley announced the appointment of an Alabama Drone Task Force to develop a plan for use of drones by state agencies. The task force’s first meeting was announced on a state open-meetings website a week earlier.
“Based on the research we’ve done, I’d say there’s very little regulation at the state or federal level,” said Shirrell Roberts, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s deputy director for homeland security.
Play and work
Bishop may be a cop in his day job, but his love affair with drones began as off-hours play.
“I saw a Parrot drone, and what it could do,” he said, referring to one of the less expensive models on the market. “I thought, that is just the coolest thing since sliced bread.”
Soon Bishop had sunk $2,500 into his own drones. He turned his hobby into a part of a small business, in which Bishop occasionally shoots 360-degree tours of houses for local real estate agents. But Bishop and his boss can’t help but see the potential law enforcement uses of the technology.
“If you had a hostage situation, or somebody that’s run off in the woods, a drone could let you see everything that’s going on,” said Jacksonville police Chief Tommy Thompson.
For small cities, Thompson said, drones could give some of the advantages of having a police helicopter, at a tiny fraction of the cost. Unlike a helicopter, he noted, a small drone is quiet and likely to go unnoticed by a suspect. Built with lightweight plastic and powered with batteries, commercially available drones can linger on site typically for about half an hour at a time.
Expectation of privacy
It’s that same prospect — a world watched over by many silent drones — that worries civil libertarians on both the left and right.
“When people are in public, at a concert, they don’t have an expectation of privacy,” said Susan Watson, director of the ACLU of Alabama. “But having drones overhead does feel a little creepy.”
Watson said the state should set up rules to make sure police don’t use drones to peek onto someone’s property without a proper warrant, or to monitor people who aren’t suspects in a crime.
“Law-abiding citizens shouldn’t have to worry about the government spying on them,” she said.
State Sen. Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville, voiced similar concerns last year when he proposed a bill to ban law enforcement use of drones except in terrorism investigations. The bill never passed the Senate. The Star’s attempts to reach Sanford last week were unsuccessful.
On Friday, a task force of state officials — including Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan, Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier and Conservation Commissioner Gunter Guy — will meet in Montgomery to set up a plan for the state’s use of drones.
Roberts, the state homeland security official, said the meeting is being held at the request of the state’s Agriculture Department.
Andrew Amato isn’t too surprised that agricultural officials are heading up Alabama’s task force.
“The agricultural applications of drones are skyrocketing right now,” said Amato, editor of dronelife.com, a blog for drone enthusiasts. Farmers in other countries are already using drones to do spot spraying of crops, he said, and drones allow farmers to survey the damage done by pests.
Amato said a number of states have recently convened task forces to study drone use. Almost all have focused on law enforcement use of unmanned vehicles.
“The most restrictive states say police need a warrant if they’re looking at private property, and they’re only allowed to collect data that’s relevant to the warrant,” he said.
Most states, he said, haven’t looked at the other side of the issue — the growing use of drones by private citizens.
From wedding photographers to the online retailer Amazon, businesses have launched, or announced plans to launch, drone-related business ventures. Videos shot by hobbyists with drones are racking up hundreds of thousands of page views on YouTube. Some drone enthusiasts predict the skies will soon be crowded with civilian drones.
But the rules for civilian drone users, Amato said, are hazy.
Amato said the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) still governs use of small drones by basically the same rules applied to remote-controlled toy planes. That limits drones to flying below 400 feet, and sets restrictions on their use near airports.
FAA restrictions do ban “commercial use” of drones, Amato said. Small-business drone owners ignore the rule, he said, and courts have often not upheld it. (Bishop, like many professional videographers who use drones, says he’s selling edited video, not drone services specifically.) The FAA is reviewing its rules on private use of the small drones, he said.
“The FAA is supposed to have something in place by fall of next year,” Amato said. “A lot of people in the industry think it will take longer.”
Attempts to reach FAA officials Friday for comment on the rules were unsuccessful.
Amato said that in some ways, use of drones by police is similar to the use of police helicopters. Still, he said, people are still nervous about unmanned aircraft.
“If you were following O.J. Simpson’s car with a drone, people would freak out about it,” he said.
©2014 The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala.)