Drones Over America: What Can They See?

Unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, have long played a role in military operations. But imagine thousands of drones flying over U.S. skies — something we may see in just a few years. In February, President Obama signed an aviation bill requiring the Federal Aviation Administration to make plans to integrate drones into American airspace.

On Monday’s Fresh Air, John Villasenor, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA, explains what these drones will be able to see and how they work. He also talks about the privacy and national security concerns raised by using drones for surveillance purposes.

Villasenor tells Dave Davies that drones, which are currently in use over the U.S. border with Mexico, have an endless list of non-military uses, from providing overhead surveillance for police departments to spotting wildfires and monitoring illegal border crossings.

Drones could also be used commercially by real estate firms to get overhead images of a property, by surveyors and cinematographers, and even by paparazzi trying to fly over celebrity homes, says Villasenor.

“That is going to be certainly some of the tests of what the limits are going to be provided by [paparazzi],” he says. “The paparazzi will want to use drones if they can and obviously that’s going to raise some very significant questions.”

One question about drone usage obviously concerns privacy. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that police officers who used a small single-engine airplane to spot hidden marijuana plants in someone’s backyard in California did not violate the Fourth Amendment because they were in “public navigable airspace in a physically non-intrusive manner.”

“Now if you take that ruling and apply it to a world in which there are hundreds or thousands of drones, that obviously gives rise to some very significant concerns,” says Villasenor. “If you interpret that ruling by itself, as things stand today, that would certainly suggest that people would have a fair amount of latitude to make observations using drones.”

But several rulings involving what can be observed from outside a property to look inside a property may also apply, says Villasenor. He points to the 2001 case Kyllo v. United States, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the use of a thermal imaging device to monitor heat radiated from inside someone’s home without a search warrant violated the Fourth Amendment.

“There’s a very interesting piece of language in that ruling that when you map it to drones is really interesting,” he says. “[It says] ‘Where, as here, the government uses a device that is not in general public use to explore details of the home that would previously have been unknowable without physical intrusion, the surveillance is a search.’ One of the interesting phrases in that language is ‘not in general public use.’ If we fast forward two or three years from now, when drones are in public use, does that change the legal foundation for what you can and can’t observe from the outside of a home that would have been previously unknowable without physical intrusion?”


Interview Highlights

On types of drones

“There are drones that are powered by jet. There are drones that could literally fit in a backpack or the palm of a hand. There are drones that are basically like balloons that sit up there in the sky in one place and can observe enormous swaths of territory.”

On drones that can stay in the air for weeks at a time

“These drones aren’t flying at 400 mph. They’re going very slowly and they have wings which are paper thin, which have solar panels which are mounted on the top and they also have batteries that store energy collected during the day so they can continue to turn the propellers and fly at night.”

On whether drones can capture audio

“Drones generate some noise themselves and so I don’t think a drone could sit 1,000 feet above and hear the conversation of two people sitting at an outside table at a coffee shop. I think it’s mostly imagery and then to a smaller extent, wireless signals.”

On drones helping traffic patterns

“Five years from now, you can probably imagine that in addition to having helicopters with people in them, you’ll have drones above the ground taking pictures of those things.”

On drones being used by terrorists

“Unfortunately I think that is a legitimate concern and honestly it keeps me up at night. I worry about that. It doesn’t take too much imagination to understand that a drone is very hard to stop. It flies low and it isn’t stopped by all of the infrastructure we have in place to make sure people don’t go to the places they’re not supposed to go to. Fences and walls and gates and barriers, it simply goes over those things. … As these drones get cheaper, more prevalent, easier to get, attract less attention, it raises the risks that they will fall into the wrong hands and be used inappropriately.”

On the FAA and privacy concerns

“The FAA, I would imagine, has more aviation lawyers than Fourth Amendment constitutional lawyers. To be fair to the FAA, their primary mission … is to provide what they call ‘the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.’ And frankly, I think they’ve done an extremely good job of that. So their concern, as they go through the steps of this aviation bill that was enacted on Feb. 14, 2012 is first and foremost to integrate drones into the airspace in a safe matter. And I think that is the right priority. In addition, of course, there are the privacy concerns. But I think it is going to be left to the broader government — obviously with the input of non-governmental groups — to address those.”

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