Media zooms in on university’s drone class

Testifying in favor of the Guernsey bill was the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, a group the Republican typically doesn’t expect as a supporter. But the ACLU isn’t the only privacy group unsettled by drones. Amie Stepanovich is the director of the domestic surveillance project for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a leader in calling for new privacy protections.

Drones, said Stepanovich, “are almost a breeding ground for surveillance. Automatic license plate readers, motion detectors, the list goes on. And they are cheap to own and operate.” Seattle police dropped a planned drone program in February following a community outcry over privacy concerns.

Bills in Indiana and Nebraska would restrict some law enforcement uses of drones. When technology is cheap, people tend to use it more, and that’s one of the chief reasons additional privacy protections are needed, Stepanovich said. Brookstone sells a quad-copter for $300.

There’s also the matter of degree. Some argue that public cameras are watching us all the time anyway, but Stepanovich says even a string of building and street-level cameras have an “ending place.”

“And drones can do it in a way that’s quiet, unseen, unnoticed by the individual,” she said. Although there are statutes and case law that cover privacy matters, it would be best for all if the laws were written specifically to this technology, she said. “You could promote the technology while still making sure people’s rights are protected,” she said.

The unmanned aerial systems industry has a different message: Privacy issues are overblown, and drones can deliver jobs. The report by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International projects more than $82 billion in economic impact by 2025, with 100,000 new jobs. That assumes the adoption of “sensible regulations.”

Kansas is among the top 10 states expected to reap the most benefits. (A program at K-State in Salina is competing to be one of the six test sites authorized for drones by the FAA.) Regions with established aerospace industries are projected to do well, and 90 percent of the promising commercial markets are in precision agriculture and public safety. Now is the time to promote unmanned systems, not hamper them, especially in the face of international competition, said Michael Toscano, AUVSI president and CEO.

Although privacy issues get the most attention, the potential benefits of drones need to be emphasized, he said.

“This technology allows us to extend our eyes and ears and hands _ and our minds as well,” said Toscano, who recited all the ways he’s seen it work. Robert Blair, an Idaho farmer, is tired of naysayers who only see a boogeyman in the technology. Unmanned aerial vehicles “are a platform to gather data. We need this technology now. Our government has gotten in the way.”

Blair writes a blog called the Unmanned Farmer, and he sees drones as the next evolution of precision agriculture, which uses technology to gather a cascade of information that reduces costs, increases productivity and reduces environmental impacts.

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