Drones aren't fiction, so rules are needed

Feb. 28, 2013 @ 09:12 AM

Putting the subject of drone aircraft on the agenda for Lenoir’s Committee of the Whole got Mayor Pro Tem T.J. Rohr some gentle ribbing Tuesday.

But where the Tea Party and the American Civil Liberties Union come together there is smoke indicating something may be smoldering.

The first instinct when confronted with the topic of drones in Lenoir is to laugh. It seems silly.

But 10 years ago it seemed silly to think that soon we would have readily available handheld supercomputers that answered our spoken questions (and there is talk of shrinking them down to wristwatch size). When the first conceptual images came out a few years ago of a Google project to create glasses that could project data about your surroundings onto lenses in front of your face, people thought surely that’s a long ways off, but go to your computer now and Google “Project Glass.” It’s here. Soon it will be for sale.

Primitive drones, in fact, have been around for years. You know them as remote-controlled planes and helicopters. Again, go Google the word drones, and you can easily find relatively inexpensive devices that can hover while recording video. How much control you have over the aircraft or the video depends on how much you’re willing to spend, but like all technology it is rapidly becoming more sophisticated. It is a short technological jump from there to independent aircraft run by computer.

Some of the more likely early uses of consumer-oriented “drone” applications probably will be whimsical — something like the remote-controlled “air swimmer.” Google the term, or search on YouTube, and you’ll find video of a helium-filled, shark-shaped balloon that has a tiny device installed that lets it “swim” slowly through the air of your house or office. Imagine one of those programmed to “patrol” the floor and react independently to people.

But as with almost everything, there will come uses that are not so fun.

Imagine a peeping tom who never leaves his back porch but can send a helicopter the size of a lunch box, whisper-quiet, from house to house with a video camera on it that streams images back to his iPad.

Or, like Rohr, imagine a similar-sized black helicopter in the use of a government agency, going window to window in search of no particular thing, just anything that might provide a reason for a knock on the door. Or not even looking in the window, just hanging around for hours at a time with a high-powered listening device and thermal imaging.

It’s not just for laughs that the ACLU, International Association of Chiefs of Police, Federal Aviation Administration and others are talking about drones. You can’t always predict how quickly and how far technology will advance, and it’s harder still to predict all the ways new technology might be used. Court fights are bound to ensue.

The easy question to start with is whether you want the government hanging around, potentially 24 hours a day, just watching and listening. No reason. Just watching, anything, and listening, to everything. If the answer is no, some basic guidelines are reasonable.