Target 11: As drone use rises, so does concerns about privacy

by: Rick Earle, Target 11 Investigator Updated:


PITTSBURGH - The number of drones flying above you is expected to rise dramatically.

The military has used them for years, and now some local universities and businesses want to use them.  But with that projected explosion of drones comes some very serious safety and privacy concerns. 

At Carnegie Mellon University, researchers are on the cutting edge of drone technology.  They’ve developed the Hexicopter, and students and professors gave Target 11 an inside look at this state-of-the-art drone.  It costs about $20,000 and relies on a computer and lasers to fly by itself. 

“It makes its own map as it goes,” said Jonathan Butzke, a graduate student at CMU.

“It perceives the obstacles and figures out where it should go in order to avoid them,” said Max Likhachev, a CMU robotics professor.

Equipped with a camera and sensors these drones can go where it’s too dangerous for man. 

“Hazardous areas such as nuclear reactors, or disaster areas to buildings after the fire.  We have been contacted by a nuclear plant and we are discussing whether we can have a drone fly in and exam areas that may have leakage of radioactive material,” said Likhachev.

No longer are drones limited to secret war missions.  Channel 11 News spotted this one over Pittsburgh during the arrival of the 40-foot duck that was parked at Point State Park for several weeks. 

 Crews also used drones to map flood damage in Colorado.  

At West Virginia University, students want to use them for mapping projects.  And there’s even the possibility of using them for delivering food in the future.

“It's probably faster than a delivery driver, keeps an extra car off the road.  Probably better for the environment than driving a vehicle over to deliver a pizza,” Said Butzke.

But right now commercial drone use is illegal, unless you have a permit from the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Since 2007, the FAA has issued 1400 permits, most of them to universities for research and to law enforcement agencies for investigative purposes.   That number is expected to soar when the FAA opens up airspace to commercial drones in 2015, and that is raising both safety and privacy concerns.

By 2020, the FAA expects anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 drones flying in the skies above you.

“What we want to avoid is some indiscriminate mass surveillance,” said Vic Walczak, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in Pittsburgh.

The ACLU believes law enforcement agencies should be required to obtain a warrant form a judge before using drones for surveillance.   

Some municipalities have already passed laws restricting to the used of drones. State lawmakers in Pennsylvania have also introduced legislation that would make it a crime to use a drone to spy on someone. 

“Can you image what kind of privacy issues you'd have if somebody has this technology and is able to fly that over your back yard, and your swimming pool, and up to your bedroom when the shade isn't drawn,” said State Representative Daryl Metcalfe, a republican from Cranberry.

Right now the FAA is in the process of creating six test sites around the country to determine the best way to integrate drones into the airspace.