Look to the skies: How the drone revolution could be coming to the US

Watch out, within five years 7,500 drones may be plying American airspace

Related Topics

We know now that this country is more adept at snooping than protecting privacy rights. But on the whole I can live with the National Security Agency burrowing into my every fibre-optic communication even if it means they've rumbled my pug-cam addiction. After all, who wants to live through a 9/11 twice?

I did say so far. That awful whirring sound you hear is a tiny drone and soon it will be right above you to check you are not cycling through a red light or sleeping with your neighbour's wife. Never mind Big Brother; we need to talk about Big Bird.

These days, pilotless aircraft aren't just flying over foreign lands zapping “terrorists”. Michael Huerta, who runs the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), predicts that within five years 7,500 drones will be plying America's airspace. That compares with the 5,000 commercial aircraft in the sky in any usual daytime hour.

I saw my first two weeks ago, during a seminar held in a glass-box meeting space a few storeys up. As part of a documentary project a camera-carrying drone hovered throughout outside the windows. Fortunately nothing went awry. But this summer one drone crashed into the side of a skyscraper in Manhattan and hit the deck. Another filming a bull-run in Virginia injured four when it ploughed into a spectator stand.

As usual, the feds are playing catch-up. The FAA two weeks ago released what it called a “road map” for agreeing the safety rules for drone flights in America. It will designate six test sites around the country where would-be operators will demonstrate what their flying weasels can do and the FAA can decide what those rules should be, like keeping them away from real aircraft. It promises to have it done by September 2015. Until then it is keeping on top of matters approving drone use on a case-by-case basis.

Or so it claims. But when you can go on Amazon and buy a Parrot Quadcopter for just $299 (£184) – a kind of flying spider with four rotors sturdy enough to carry a video or still camera – it should be obvious that the FAA can't possibly know who is out there already directing their own private drone missions.

More importantly, the 70-page FAA document is nearly all about safety while it pays only lip service to what should be concerning us just as much – how the coming swarms will corrupt our privacy even further. “It's what we do best,” the papers says about keeping drone traffic safe, before adding: “It's still to be determined what part of the government will ultimately be responsible for [drone] privacy protection.”

This is hardly reassuring.

There is no point in hoping that the sudden interest in civilian drones will fizzle and die. There are scores of ways in which they will become indispensable to all manner of people.

Journalists will use them, for example to get a look at natural disaster or combat zones. Indeed, CNN used drone footage of the cyclone devastation in the Philippines. Anyone trying to survey hard-to-access areas – oil companies, search and rescue teams, environmentalists and so on – will rush to deploy them.

But so will people with more nefarious intentions. Celebrities might want to ponder the matter as the paparazzi-brigade realises it can take its game into airspace. Ask Tina Turner whose August wedding in Switzerland was disturbed by an uninvited camera-loaded drone. The possibilities for those who govern us similarly to abuse these sometimes invisible flying-spying-eyes should also make us shudder.

“What's to prevent all these commercial operators from sharing the vast treasure trove of data that they collect with the government?” asks Jennifer Lynch, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an anti-surveillance activist group. “Drones present new issues and they include the fact that drones can fly at various altitudes that makes them impossible to see.”

Most Americans surely didn't know that more than 80 police departments are already using drones to expand their gaze on us until Joe Arpaio, the controversial sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, which encompasses Phoenix, blurted last week how badly he wanted one.

“A place in Russia said I have a fleet of drones,” he exclaimed “A fleet? I don't even have one yet.” But when he does will he use it to chase crooks only or will he indulge in his well-documented habit of harassing members of the Hispanic community who may or may not be in the US legally? A federal court has already ruled his department guilty of illegal discrimination in its efforts to identify and deport anyone without papers.

The work of a Peeping Tom got easier with the invention of the ladder and then the long lens. But put them up in the air – whether they are perverts, the police or the paparazzi – and none of us will dare open our curtains ever again.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Associate Recruitment Consultant - Global Leader - FTSE 250

£18000 - £23000 per annum + competitive: SThree: As an Associate Recruitment C...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Representative

£22000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family run school photogra...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - OTE £42,000

£28000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be joining a leading s...

SThree: Associate Recruitment Consultant -Engineering -Renewable Energy

£18000 - £23000 per annum + competitive: SThree: As an Associate Recruitment C...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A church in South Carolina burns after a fire breaks out on June 30, 2015  

America knows who has been burning black churches, but it refuses to say

Robert Lee Mitchell III
England's Jodie Taylor, left, and Jill Scott celebrate Taylor's goal against Canada during the first half in a quarterfinal of the Women's World Cup  

Women's World Cup: We should be able to praise England's Lionesses without shaming the men's team

Charlie Webster
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map