Inexpensive, easy-to-fly drones piloted by amateur operators are becoming more commonplace in the United States — many of them carrying still or video cameras.
Some attendees at Friday’s Columbia Basin Badger Club forum talked about what to do if a drone showed up outside their window or in their yard.
“If one’s invading your privacy, can you shoot it down?” club member Marilyn Hyde asked.
Drones and privacy recently became an issue in the Tri-Cities, when Kennewick police received complaints from at least four homes near Edison Street and 10th Avenue. Witnesses said a drone recorded people in their yards and through windows.
Mike DeMint-Myers, a Federal Aviation Administration regulator and former Air Force pilot who piloted drones in the Middle East, recently asked an attorney that very question recently and the lawyer didn’t know, he said.
But DeMint-Myers suggested the best thing to do is to contact law enforcement. An invasion of privacy is the same for drones as it would be for a person, he said.
“It’s just like a peeping Tom,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it is in the air or on the ground.”
Another member, Mary Bliss, questioned how effective a call to local police would be if she saw people illegally flying drones.
“If I go to Leslie Groves Park and call 911, they may say, ‘that is an FAA issue, call them,’ ” she said.
Panelist Samaruddin Stewart, a California journalist who has worked for AOL News and the Arizona Republic, admitted that the luncheon at the Richland Red Lion Hotel wasn’t likely to come to any resolution on the issue of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, but it was good to begin a dialogue.
Stewart showed an aerial video taken by a drone in the aftermath of wildfires earlier this year in Washington. A hobbyist — who is allowed to use drones — took the video, but USA Today’s website used it.
The government restricts news agencies from using drones because news agency use is considered commercial.
“Was there a monetary exchange between USA Today and the hobbyist?” Stewart asked. “I have no idea. I would imagine that there was, and that would be illegal.”
The message to hobbyists is simple, DeMint-Myers said. “If you operate like that, take all the pictures you’d like. Just don’t sell them.”
Drones also can be of value for other uses considered commercial, including helping ranchers look after their cattle, Stewart said.
The FAA is taking public comment on new policies regarding drone use, but DeMint-Myers said it could take years before the rules are in place.
Stewart has other concerns about some of the proposed requirements, including that drones be required to be in the line of sight of the operator. Such rules prohibit valuable uses for drones, which recently collected images of places people previously couldn’t go, like active volcanoes and nuclear accident sites in Chernobyl in Ukraine and Fukushima, Japan.
The agency also errs because it considers all drones under 55 pounds under the same rules, Stewart said. Most consumer drones weigh much less than that, such as the popular DJI Phantom, which weighs 2.5 pounds and is available for $449 on Amazon.
The U.S. already is losing business because Amazon and Google took drone testing programs to Canada and Australia, which have softer regulations, he said.
“The cat’s out of the bag; these things are on the market,” Stewart said. “Whatever does come out in regulations and rules should recognize that.”
Some attendees had even stronger opinions about the FAA’s rulemaking.
“The FAA would not have allowed the Wright Brothers to leave the ground,” Matt Taylor said. “It’s really going to be a hoot to see them out doing this.”