The Implications Of Drones In U.S. Airspace
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Coming up, the posthumous release of a book by the man known as the deadliest sniper in U.S. history, who was killed earlier this year at a shooting range.
But first, small drones are coming to U.S. airspace. Drone manufacturers, police departments, farmers and many businesses are eager to begin using unmanned aerial vehicles here.
And as NPR's Steve Henn reports, government officials from the FAA to state legislators are struggling with the implications.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: The FAA says by the end of this year, it's likely to issue a new proposed rule that would allow small commercial drones - 55 pounds or less - to fly in U.S. airspace. These little drones probably won't be allowed to fly near airports or above 400 feet, but that doesn't mean they won't have some powerful capabilities.
Chris Dixon is at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.
CHRIS DIXON: Yeah, drones in general - commercial drones are basically a data business for the most part.
HENN: Picture fleets of little drones collecting information about anything you can imagine. Dixon's firm just invested millions in a company that makes software to allow small drones to fly autonomously for hours. The system also makes it possible to plug in all different kinds of sensors to these tiny planes - from cameras to heat sensors to devices that sniff the air for chemicals.
DIXON: For example, there are large, you know, power lines and gas lines and oil lines and things that go across remote and dangerous areas of the world.
HENN: But it's not just oil companies or the cops that want to use drones. Small lightweight unmanned aerial vehicles have caught the eye of journalists, filmmakers and even environmentalists.
NICK: Probably one of the things I'm most proud of is that I'm working on this film about river restoration.
HENN: Nick, who asked us not to use his last name, isn't waiting for new rules to allow commercial drones. Instead, he's flying and filming illegally. His logic? If he can fly over it in a regular plane, it's fair game.
NICK: There are some legitimate concerns with these because you can be a lot lower to the ground than you can with a conventional aircraft. So, you know, would I want somebody creeping around my house or around my windows with one? No.
HENN: If the FAA tracked Nick down, they could put him out of business, but he thinks concerns about drone-based snooping are overblown. He says creeping up on someone with the drones he uses would be like trying to sneak up on them with a leaf blower.
NICK: It's got lights. It's noisy. There's nothing sneaky about it.
HENN: It seems likely that national drone regulations will leave room for filmmakers like Nick. But states might not. A bill waiting for the governor's signature in Texas bans drones outright, but then it carves out 19 separate exceptions, including some for the police, but nothing for the press.
MARGOT KAMINSKI: The interesting thing about this bill is that it doesn't explicitly seem to consider the First Amendment at all.
HENN: Margot Kaminski is a lecturer at the Yale Law School who often writes about legal policy questions raised by drones. She says the Texas bill creates a patchwork.
KAMINSKI: Texas realtors, for example, are permitted to use unmanned aerial vehicles to take photos, and Texas oilmen can use them to check on rigs, but there doesn't seem to be any exception for photojournalism.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE GENE WU: This has created what I call a zebra law.
HENN: Gene Wu is a legislator in Texas representing Southwest Houston.
WU: You go from one spot, it's legal. You move over just a little bit, it becomes illegal. And then you move over a little bit again, it becomes legal. It'll be extremely confusing to law enforcement and to the average citizen.
HENN: The bill's sponsors say if property owners give a drone pilot permission to film or fly, it's all good. Still, using drones to monitor wildlife will probably be banned. Scientific research might be allowed or it might not. An unmanned traffic copter, banned. Already, there's a community of amateur photographers and filmmakers in Texas who are using drones legally and have had an impact.
KAMINSKI: There was a man who flew his drone taking photographs over a Dallas meatpacking plant and photographed a river of blood coming out of the back of the meatpacking plant.
HENN: What do you mean river of blood?
KAMINSKI: Like an actual river of pig blood. You can see the meatpacking plant itself and then this blood-red creek that then flows down to a major Texas river.
HENN: The drone pilot shared that photo with state and federal authorities. That led to an investigation, fines and eventually a cleanup. But the proposed bill in Texas would make the drone pilot here the criminal. And Texas isn't the only state considering legislation to rein in how drones can be used. More than 30 states have passed or are considering their own prohibitions on drones.
HENN: Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.