Sharp-eyed dog walkers along the San Francisco Bay waterfront may have spotted a strange-looking plane zipping overhead recently that looked strikingly like the US stealth drone captured by Iran in December last year.
A few key differences: The flying wing seen over Berkeley is a fraction of the size of the CIA’s waylaid aircraft and it is made of plastic foam. However, in some ways it is just like a real spy plane.
The 1.35m wide aircraft, built by software engineers Mark Harrison and Andreas Oesterer in their spare time, can fly itself to specified GPS coordinates and altitudes without any help from a pilot on the ground. A tiny video camera mounted on the front can send a live video feed to a set of goggles for the drone’s view of the world below.
“It’s just like flying without all the trouble of having to be up in the air,” Harrison said.
Thousands of hobbyists are taking part in what has become a global do-it-yourself drone subculture, a pastime that’s thriving as the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) seeks to make the skies friendlier to unmanned aircraft of all sizes.
The use of drones in the US by law enforcement and other government agencies has privacy advocates on edge. At the same time, some do-it-yourself drone flyers believe the ease of sending cheap pilotless planes and choppers airborne gives citizens a powerful tool for keeping public servants on the ground honest.
Drones are the signature weapon of US wars in the 21st century. Just as Humvees became a presence on US highways in the 1990s after the first war with Iraq, interest in non-military uses of drones from policing to farming is rising.
Government agencies currently need FAA permission on a case-by-case basis to fly drones domestically. Commercial use is banned except for a small number of waivers for companies building experimental aircraft. However, lawmakers have instructed the agency to allow civilian use of drones in US airspace by September 2015. The FAA is expected to take the first step this year by proposing rules that would permit limited use of small commercial drones.
Whether a border patrol drone the size of a single-engine passenger plane or a four-rotor police “quadcopter” equipped with gear to intercept cellphone signals, the increasing ease of aerial surveillance seems destined to be put to a constitutional test over privacy.
“Our concern is with all of the drones,” said Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Small aircraft are hard to see, and large drones can fly high enough to stay out of sight, she said.
“I think they all pose different levels of privacy risk,” Lynch said.
Lynch has sued the FAA for a list of the 300 waivers it has issued to allow drone use in the US. At the same time, she said drones in the hands of average citizens could have important uses.
Among the groups seeking to take advantage of the steep drop in price of drone technology are journalists who want to attach cameras to aircraft the size of small pizzas and that cost as much to buy — about US$400 — as a one-hour helicopter rental for a photographer.
In the San Francisco Bay area, Occupy Wall Street activists built the so-called Occucopter designed to monitor police action against protesters from the sky. In Idaho, wildlife biologists started using a drone for counting fish nets after a helicopter crash killed two colleagues and a pilot. Researchers are also developing techniques to use drones equipped with infrared sensors to detect patches of dry ground in orchards.