Eyes in the sky: Drone growth elevates fun, raises privacy concerns

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

As many as a million kids and kids-at-heart had their wishes take flight when they unwrapped a drone during the holidays.

Consumer technology took a turn in 2015 and propelled domestic drones to new heights in popularity in late 2015 and early 2016.

But policymakers and privacy advocates see gray areas as more and more pilots send their small unmanned aircraft into blue skies.

More drone pilots than planes

Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta announced in mid-January that there were more registered drone operators than registered planes in the United States. The FAA reports 320,000 registered manned aircraft and more than 325,000 registered drone owners.

The number of drones in the United States likely is higher — because operators might own more than one small unmanned aircraft and other operators might not be registered, according to Huerta.

The FAA launched a Web-based drone registration campaign just before Christmas, anticipating drone sales to skyrocket to a million during the holidays. The agency requires registration by operators of drones weighing more than 0.55 pounds and less than 55 pounds, if they plan to fly outdoors for hobby or recreation. Registered drone operators receive a number that must be affixed to their aircraft.

An FAA exemption program exists for operators of drones for commercial activities — including bridge inspections, movie and television filming, aerial photography, mapping and surveying work, pipeline inspections and first-responder investigation and surveillance activity.

“The future is really here with drones,” said recreational pilot Kevin Fontaine of Green Bay. “They can be adapted for all kinds of fun and games and also used in all kinds of work. I first heard of them from a photographer friend. He was using a drone outfitted with a camera to make a zombie movie.”

The zombie flick, Horror in Mount Horeb, hasn’t reached a movie-going audience, but many films and TV programs featuring scenes filmed using drones have shown up on large and small screens.

“Drones have been instrumental in capturing some of the most iconic cinematography in recent memory,” said Randy Scott Slavin, founder and director of the New York City Drone Film Festival. 

“Drones are the most important cinematic tool since the tripod,” said Slavin, who referenced drone footage for the Oscar-winning opening sequence of Skyfall, the infamous Hamptons party scene in The Wolf of Wall Street and the many landscape images in the Netflix series Narcos.

This year’s festival — the first such event dedicated to movies filmed using drones — is March 4–6. The final day features “Day of Drones,” with screenings and demonstrations by drone builders and pilots. One activity, “Drone Vision,” provides an opportunity for the curious to strap on a pair of goggles to see what a drone camera sees as it zips around New York City’s Liberty State Park.

Fontaine said he’d like to refine his drone flying skills to take aerial landscape photographs this spring.

“I’m still learning how to use it and there’s a lot of potential,” he said. “But for now, it’s a toy.”

In the toy chest

Drones can be purchased for less than $50 and more than $500, but most cost $120–$200. They’re wowing consumers and retailers at toy fairs and trade shows.

At 2016 toy fairs, Odyssey Toys is showcasing the Pocket Drone, a collapsing video drone that’s about the size of an iPhone 6 — light enough and small enough to fit into a pocket. The built-in high-definition camera captures images to a 4GB SD card and the drone, which can be operated indoors or outdoors, features LEDs for night flying.

Another “wow” at fairs is a toy built for pilots as young as 10 — Spin Master’s Air Hogs Connect: Mission Drone, which combines drone-flying and smartphone gaming.

“It will be interesting to watch what happens as consumer unmanned aerial vehicle technology continues to evolve,” said Phil Solis, research director at ABI Research. The company monitors the tech market and predicts that consumer drone shipments will exceed 90 million units and generate $4.6 billion in revenues by 2025.

It also will be interesting to watch what happens with the regulation of drones as consumer, commercial and government use prompts concerns about criminal applications and security breaches — and raising questions about privacy rights. 

Rules and regulations

In December, the Center for Democracy and Technology proposed a set of voluntary best practices for drone operators, intending to protect privacy rights and support the industry.

The nonprofit, which advocates civil liberties and a free Internet, recommended:

• Commercial drone operators establish a privacy policy that describes the purposes for which the drone is used and the types of data the drone collects.

• Private drone operators should not intentionally use a drone to enter private property without the landowner’s consent.

• Private drone operators should not use drones to collect personal data without consent where an individual has an expectation of privacy; for persistent monitoring of individuals; or for employment, credit or health-care eligibility.

• Private drone operators should try to avoid collecting, retaining or disclosing unnecessary personal data without consent. When possible, unnecessary data should be destroyed or de-identified.

• Commercial drone operators should take basic steps to secure the personal data they collect.

Federal guidelines established by Congress require that recreational drone operators keep unmanned aircraft in their sight and below 400 feet, stay clear of manned aircraft, remain at least 25 feet away from individuals and vulnerable property, avoid flying and using drugs or alcohol, and avoid photographing people in areas where there is an expectation of privacy.

Drone pilots also must respect the no-fly zones established by the FAA and, increasingly, under state and local law.

A focus this legislative season in Wisconsin and elsewhere was on drone use near prisons. 

Drones were deployed to deliver contraband — drugs, pornography, cellphones and weapons — to prisons in Maryland, Ohio and Oklahoma in 2015. In Wisconsin, a pilot lost contact with a drone that landed on the grounds of the Waupun Correctional Institution.

The incidents prompted lawmakers to take up bills creating no-fly zones.

Simple steps to directing with a drone

Randy Scott Slavin, founder and director of the New York City Drone Film Festival, offers five steps to movie-making with a small unmanned aircraft:

1. Read. Read the operating manual for the drone and read federal regulations and any local and state rules on piloting a drone.

2. Practice. Drones are unique and have different flight characteristics. The only way to improve as a pilot is to practice.

3. Shoot. Slavin says “shoot constantly” with drone cameras.

4. Imagine. Drones put cameras in new places and can use cameras in new ways to re-invent how stories are told on film.

5. Share. Edit and share footage online and at festivals. It’s too late to enter the 2016 New York festival — nycdronefilmfestival.com — but not too late to prepare for 2017.

— Lisa Neff

Reach Lisa Neff at lmneff@www.wisconsingazette.com.