Backyard drones raise privacy questions

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The country is abuzz with drones - from the US Senate to Indiana's Statehouse

"These things go wherever they want," said Senator Jim Tomes (R-Wadesville).

To neighborhoods and homes like yours. When JR Rogers spotted one, he said "If it got within range, I would swat it down."

Small, remote-controlled, information-gathering, unarmed aircraft, inspired by the technology that created behemoth military drones are available to anyone, to fly almost anywhere, with few restrictions - including cost. We bought our own. For $329 we walked out of the hobby story with a battery-operated drone equipped with two video cameras.

Admittedly, the first few flights didn't go so well. We crashed a lot. But with practice and calmer weather, I was flying over rooftops and peeking over tall fences.

Almost immediately, we had Rogers' attention.

"When I first saw it, I said, 'Okay, he's flying over the windows and stuff like that. What are they up to?'."

Tomes proposed legislation making it a crime to photograph anyone with a drone, along with other restrictions that would prevent even police from flying them.

"What scares me is how they might be used by agencies or even individuals," the senator explained.

Seattle residents were outraged when police there purchased a pair of drones. The mayor grounded them until the city approved guidelines for their use.

Police and other public safety agencies, private companies and individuals are exploiting the benefits of these UAV's - unmanned aerial vehicles. They cost a fraction of full-size aircraft and their uses range from crime fighting to agricultural research to aerial photography. Volunteers flew one during their search for missing IU student Lauren Spierer.

Their growing use is fueling growing controversy.

"I think this is a classic example of where technology is developing faster than the law," said attorney Charles Braun.

Braun teaches law to lawmen attending Indiana's Law Enforcement Academy.

Police usually need a search warrant to search your home or property. But if they want to look past windows and over fences, can they buy a drone, fly it over a house and watch residents anytime they want?

"At this time, yes," answered Braun.

And can a private citizen do the same thing?

"Yes, that is correct," Braun said.

When Tim Wilcox sees a drone, the private investigator says he sees the future. The owner of Indianapolis-based International Investigators Inc. is building several drones. The private detective agency intends to rent them to emergency service agencies and use them himself, primarily to investigate insurance disability fraud.

"The people who are most afraid of them are the ones defrauding the government, or the taxpayer or private individuals like me and you," Wilcox insisted.

Drones used by police and private industry can cost tens of thousands of dollars. They can be equipped with high-powered lenses and infrared cameras. Capable of flying thousands of feet high and miles away, they are a far cry from drones most people like Phil Cramer can afford to buy or fly or build.

"I am afraid of politicians and others trying to legislate this and make it difficult or illegal to do something I've been doing for 50 years, more or less," he complained.

Cramer is a hobby flyer, professional photographer and gadget guy. Privacy concerns, in his words, are laughable.

"Believe me, you would do better with a stick with a camera on it to get pictures of your neighbor's backyard," he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration is concerned about endangering real aircraft and people on the ground. FAA regulations restrict unmanned aircraft to government agencies, universities and, under limited conditions, hobbyists. Companies are excluded from flying them, but increasing numbers of business are anyway. Enforcement appears lax and fines are rare.

But that may change soon.

The FAA plans to propose new UAV regulations by the end of the year. Indiana lawmakers are set to discuss drone restrictions this summer.

The buzz over privacy and what's flying overhead isn't going away - it is getting louder.