Look, Up In The Sky! It's A Drone, Looking At You Unmanned aircraft — or drones — are playing a big role in U.S. military operations abroad but they're starting to show up above the U.S. as well. Drones are already being used to patrol the border with Mexico, and now they may soon be coming to your local police department.

Look, Up In The Sky! It's A Drone, Looking At You

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Lynn Neary.


I'm Robert Siegel. And it's time now for All Tech Considered.


SIEGEL: Unmanned aircraft, or drones, are integral to U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. But they're also likely to show up in increasing numbers here at home. Drones are already used to patrol the border with Mexico.

And as NPR's Brian Naylor reports, they may be coming to a police department near you.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The video AeroVironment's website showing the capabilities of its unmanned aircraft called the Qube is a bit like those TV ads for a new toy. Police officers chasing a suspect wearing a black cap arrive at the suspect's home. The suspect runs behind the house, out of sight. The officers open the trunk of their patrol car and pull out what looks almost like a toy model aircraft, with four rotors and a video camera. They launched the drone.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I have a visual on the suspect. Positive I.D. of a gun in his right hand. I repeat, there is a gun in the suspect's right hand. Proceed with caution.

NAYLOR: The video, of course, has a happy ending. The suspect is apprehended by the officers who are able to monitor his movements, thanks to the video feed on the iPad-like tablet that also serves as the Qube's controller. About all that's missing is the caption: Batteries Not Included. But the Qube is not aimed at kids hoping to find one under their tree on Christmas morning. And while it looks like one, it's no toy.

Steve Gitlin is vice president of the California firm that manufactures the Qube.

STEVE GITLIN: The Qube is the first solution that AeroVironment has introduced specifically targeting what we identify as the public safety market. And that's really public safety professionals like law enforcement, search and rescue, and first responders.

NAYLOR: Drones, or unmanned vehicles, have been a success with the military. And companies like AeroVironment hope to make them an increasingly common sight in the skies this country. Gitlin says the Qube costs just a bit more than a police patrol car, making it a much less expensive alternative to a manned helicopter.

In Mesa County, Colorado, the Sheriff's Department is testing a drone called the Dragonfly X6. Ben Miller, unmanned systems coordinator for the sheriff's office, says it's been especially useful in search operations.

BEN MILLER: We had a lost subject in a vegetated creek bed and we were given about a mile length of that creek to search. And we completed that search in just a little over an hour with two staff members.

NAYLOR: Miller says a typical search using volunteers marching shoulder-to-shoulder would have taken hours. Miller says there have been no bugs with the drones and they're easy to operate.

MILLER: At about two pounds, the safety risks to people on the ground are rather minimal. In fact it, you know, it weighs less than your common Canadian goose.

NAYLOR: While law enforcement is a big market for makers of unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, there are many other potential civilian users. Gretchen West is with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry trade group.

GRETCHEN WEST: Utility companies - so oil and gas - using a UAS to do surveillance over a pipeline; electrical companies that want to do surveillance over some of their electrical wires; the agriculture market. So, you can use UAS for crop testing. You could use UAS for tracking livestock. You've also got...

NAYLOR: All that flying around of unmanned aircraft has some people a little wary. Privacy advocate Harley Geiger, of the Center for Democracy and Technology, says drones are basically flying video cameras.

HARLEY GEIGER: Drones can easily be equipped with facial recognition cameras, infrared cameras, or open WiFi sniffers. And so, when people think about drones, they shouldn't just think that a telephoto lens is the only feature that can raise a privacy issue.

NAYLOR: Nor, says Geiger, is it only law enforcement that could be watching.

GEIGER: The paparazzi, your homeowners' association, your neighbor, a journalist can all sic drones on you, as well.

NAYLOR: Geiger says people should closely watch the FAA. That agency is working on rules to establish standards, such as how high drones can fly and what kind of training operators need. Geiger hopes they'll address privacy concerns, as well. Those proposed regulations could be released next month.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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