Pay No Attention To That Robot Above The Protest

I noticed this article when it was published on Deadline two weeks ago, but I haven’t heard much else since.

The Federal Aviation Administration gave special permits to three companies to use unmanned aerial vehicles/systems- whatever they want to be called these days- for commercial purposes. Normally, you’d need a permit for that.

One is an agriculture company that wants to use a drone with a camera to check on crop fields. Another is a railroad that wants to inspect track infrastructure.

The third is CNN. They want to fly drones with cameras on them over people.

I have been accused of being a Luddite in the past, so I don’t want to poo-poo this too quickly. It’s just one news company- for now- and I would hope there are some restrictions on when and how they can be used.

If not, we’ll need some new laws to say what’s okay. A drone is much smaller and cheaper than a helicopter- instead of hovering over a traffic accident, it could swoop down for a better view. Who gets to decide how low is too low? The police? What about when it’s not just CNN, but FOX, NBC, CBS, ABC, and The Huffington Post all vying for airspace?

The model they’re planning to use is called a Fotokite Pro– it weighs less than two pounds and has a tether that connects it to the operator. I imagine the tether will be one of the first things to go, especially once more news organizations use them.

fotokite-pro-arial-filming-drone-desc1I suspect the things CNN wants to cover would be large gatherings of people: protests, political rallies, New Year’s Eve. But there are other applications as well. Those 7 On Your Side stories will be a lot different if it’s not just a dogged reporter chasing a small time scam artist down the street, but a drone as well.

Heck, the reporter won’t even need to break a sweat. Just put a speaker on board with the camera:

“Do you have a comment, sir? Please speak clearly and be careful of the propellers!”

And this is one of the diciest bits about using these things: it’s much harder to get away from them if you don’t want to be on camera. Yes, it may be in public, but do we want TMZ following Kim Kardashian’s convertible down the 101? What if it was you in your car? And what happens when the public, perhaps feeling drunk or riotous, tries to damage the drone by grabbing or throwing things at it?

As we become comfortable with news organizations flying drones overhead, other groups will want in as well. Some of them are already starting to use them: police departments in particular are interested in their surveillance capabilities.

Perhaps at large public gatherings, like protests or political rallies. Just keeping an eye on who’s there.

Will we be able to tell who’s who? Which drone is with the news, which is with the cops, and which is just a hobbyist? Will these mini helicopters have to have unique paint jobs?

Is this what we want? I suspect not. But we’ll have to specify the rules about where drones can fly, who can use them, and when.

The drones will only become faster and cheaper. The cameras will only get lighter and have better resolution. We can’t just think about what’s available now, but what the newer models will have years from now.

I do think this is an exciting opportunity, and I hope my inner Luddite’s fears are unfounded. But if you’re at all concerned, please write to your Congresspeople, and especially state and local legislators, who will be the ones to figure out what the rules are for these things.

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