Dawn of the Drone Age
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[AP Photo/Amazon.]

The "Prime Air" unmanned aircraft project that Amazon is working on in its research and development labs. Amazon says it will take years to advance the technology and for the Federal Aviation Administration to create the necessary rules and regulations, but CEO Jeff Bezos believes that there is no reason drones can't help get goods to customers in 30 minutes or less.

The Drone Debate

Imagine your next pizza or order from Amazon delivered to your door by a small, pilotless, helicopter-like aircraft—a drone.

In a few years you won't have to imagine. The technology for sending drones on such errands is here, and many businesses are anxiously waiting for regulatory approval so that commercial drones can launch into U.S. airspace. First, however, many concerns about safety and privacy—like the prospect of drones spying on you—must be addressed. With many benefits but also many perceived dangers, the looming widespread use of drones is fast becoming a hotly debated topic.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—better known as drones—are best known for their military duty in Afghanistan and Pakistan, targeting suspected terrorists for surveillance and missile strikes. Their use is often controversial, especially when they are accused of causing accidental civilian deaths. But drones are also being earmarked for many peaceful and even lifesaving uses in the U.S., such as locating disaster survivors, helping to fight forest fires, monitoring storms, and yes, making deliveries of books and carryout orders. With commercial licensing expected in 2015, there may be many thousands of  drones in the air within a few years, contributing to a multibillion dollar industry.

"The thought of government drones buzzing overhead and constantly monitoring the activities of law-abiding citizens runs contrary to the notion of what it means to live in a free society." Charles Grassley, R-Iowa

That prospect is triggering much excitement, and much alarm. Many states have begun crafting and passing legislation to regulate the use of drones in their airspace, particularly to address concerns over UAVs that can capture pictures, video, sound, and even heat signatures. For example, several states have passed bills requiring a probable cause warrant before a drone could be used to collect this type of evidence in a criminal investigation. Drones are already in limited use for border patrol, law enforcement, and other government work. On January 14, 2014, police officers in North Dakota used a drone equipped with infrared imaging, on loan from Homeland Security, to track the movements of an armed suspect in his home. Within hours officers made the first drone-assisted arrest of a U.S. citizen in America.

The potential abuse of drone surveillance was addressed by U.S. senator Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, during a Judiciary Committee hearing on drone legislation: "The thought of government drones buzzing overhead and constantly monitoring the activities of law-abiding citizens runs contrary to the notion of what it means to live in a free society."

As the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, told The New York Times, "This fast-emerging technology is cheap and could pose a significant threat to the privacy and civil liberties of millions of Americans. It is another example of a fast-changing policy area on which we need to focus to make sure that modern technology is not used to erode Americans' right to privacy."

Concerning safety, federal law currently restricts drones (as it does model airplanes) from flying above 400 feet to avoid interference with piloted aviation. Congress has set a deadline of September 2015 for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to come up with regulations for drone flights to help ensure safety. Safety concerns were underscored on January 27, 2014, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection crashed one of the nine drones the agency uses for surveillance off the coast of San Diego due to a mechanical problem. The agency then grounded the rest of the fleet as it investigates the problem. To help ensure safety in upcoming national regulations, the FAA has set up six research sites to test and map how best to integrate drones into U.S. airspace.

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