Domestic drones: Good idea or an invasion of privacy? - FOX 10 News |

Domestic drones: Good idea or an invasion of privacy?

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Remotely piloted aircraft, more commonly known as drones, have been in use for some time now, mostly by the military.

Their use has created some controversy, and some embarrassments including the Iranian capture of a CIA drone earlier this year.

But get ready to see and hear a lot of more about this technology as it makes its way from the battlefield to your back yard.

Hobbyists like Ed Obeirne have taken radio controlled airplanes to a whole new level. In a plane he built from scratch, a small camera called a Go-Pro is mounted in the nose. And a transmitter sends a picture back. Just like Air Force flyers guiding a Predator, Ed uses a camera and a transmitter to fly his plane.

While flying for us, Ed said he could see "the McDowell Mountains out of the front of the airplane" because he can see what the plane sees while wearing a special set of goggles that project an image of what the camera on the plane sees. He says, "The video transmitter has 10 channels in the 5.8 gigahertz band, plenty of bandwidth to use."

Ed keeps his plane within sight, even while wearing his video goggles. To fly it out of direct line of sight or above 400 feet, Ed would need a special license from the FAA.

At the University of Arizona in Tucson, Professor Herman Fasel showed us several larger drones that students at the University are building and flying. "This one here is actually the product of a senior student design," he said while pointing to one of the aircraft.

To test fly its drones, the University of Arizona does need an FAA permit. Fasel said it can be a lengthy and time consuming process. Especially since the University's aircraft are no radio controlled toys. They are autonomous thinking machines. Professor Fasel said the planes can fly "autonomously without interference from the pilot on the ground."

In other words there is no pilot in the plane, and no controller on the ground. The plane is given a mission and then flies itself.

It sounds like a good prequel to the movie, The Terminator. But Dean of Engineering Jeff Goldberg sad it is more about science than science fiction. "The eventual goal," he said, "is to get airplanes that will fly themselves to complete missions not only individually but in teams as well.

The University of Arizona even has an indoor lab for testing computer flown planes. Assistant professor Ricardo G. Sanfelice told us "in this lab we actually do testing of control algorithms."

Sanfelice oversees students who write the computer programs that fly the planes. They use cheap off the shelf radio controlled helicopters and planes to test their computer programs in the lab. "We implement in the computer and we test if the control system works or not," Sanfelice said.

We watched as a computer took the controls and successfully flew a small plane from the surface of a table, around in a circle and then land on the table again.

The second time, it crashed onto the table and then to the floor. The third time it missed the table completely.

Once deployed in the real world, a failure in the skies above a big city could be a drone PR nightmare. "A failure could be tragic," said Sanfelice.

"The first part of the FAA mandate is to be able to integrate these kinds of systems into the national airspace in a safe way," said Dean Goldberg.

By the fall of 2015, Congress wants the Federal Aviation Administration to license remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, throughout U.S. airspace. However, more than fifty institutions nationwide already have FAA licenses to operate them, including the University of Arizona. Dean Goldberg added, "Our job is really to design the technology. Our job is to make it safe, make it useful, low cost, reliable and controllable."

But it's not just Universities getting the drone permits. The police department in Arlington, Texas has one. It got a license to use this remotely piloted helicopter. Boeing uses a Pentagon permit so it can test fly its Hummingbird helicopter drone made in Mesa. And of course the Department of Homeland Security has one, so the border patrol can fly this civilian version of the Reaper along the Arizona, Mexican border.

But few guidelines on how to use them exist.

And that's something that concerns the American Civil Liberties Union. Alessandra Soler Meetze is the Arizona ACLU Director. She says drone technology is "very, very powerful technology." Adding, "We should have rules when it can and can not be used."

After all, no one wants a drone looking into your bedroom window, right? Meetze asked, "Can they see inside my kitchen, can they see inside my backyard? This is frightening."

When it comes time to license drones and drone operators, the ACLU wants to make sure the public is part of the process. And that privacy concerns are not ignored. "It's just un-American to start using these drones to conduct surveillance on Americans who have done nothing wrong," Meetze said.

In the meantime, Ed Obeirne will continue to fly his video-guided home made planes. All he needs is some open sky and an empty road for a runway. And he hopes the new rules for flying drones don't go too far. "I think it's inevitable they are going to regulate it to some extent but I hope it's in a way that lets us continue to have fun," he said.

Meantime, the FAA is also looking for places to test drones and develop licensing rules. Arizona has already lobbied for a testing facility here.

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