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Depending on whom you ask, commercial drones spark fear or fun

Kevin Good thought there was an 80 percent chance he could successfully deliver his brother's wedding rings with a drone.

"The other 20 percent is that it could go crashing into the bride's mother's face," the Bethesda, Md., filmmaker told his brother. His brother was okay with the odds, despite the risk to his mother-in-law's makeup, and signed off.

A few weeks ago, sitting in the back row at the ceremony near San Francisco, Good steered the tiny drone to the altar, delivering the payload in front of 100 or so astonished guests. His brother grabbed the rings, then watched as Good buzzed the drone off into the blue sky.

"At the end of the wedding, that was what everyone was talking about," Good said. "It was pretty awesome."

This is the gee-whiz side of drones, a technology typically associated with surprise air assaults on terrorists. Drones designed to do the bidding of ordinary people can be bought online for $300 or less. They are often no larger than hubcaps, with tiny propellers that buzz the devices hundreds of feet into the air. But these are much more sophisticated than your average remote-controlled airplane: They can fly autonomously, find locations via GPS, return home with the push of a button, and carry high-definition cameras to record flight.

Besides wedding stunts, personal drones have been used for all kinds of high-minded purposes — helping farmers map their crops, monitoring wildfires in remote areas, locating poachers in Africa.

But not every flier is virtuous. Privacy and civil rights activists worry about neighbors spying on each other and law enforcement agencies' use of drones for surveillance or, potentially, to pepper-spray protesters.

"Drones make it possible to invade privacy without even trespassing," said Amie Stepanovich, a surveillance expert at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "This is a real concern."

Several law enforcement agencies across the country have purchased the devices. Meanwhile, as many as 40 states have considered legislation to limit drone use for police or ban the devices. A small Colorado town is weighing an ordinance to allow hunters to shoot down drones.

Drone defenders, including the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, say fears of routine aerial surveillance are overblown and threaten the potential economic benefits of commercial drones. The group predicts 70,000 new U.S. jobs and a nearly $14 billion economic boost — if privacy fears don't get in the way.

"There is a widespread belief that these are just military systems for persistent domestic surveillance. That's just not the case," said Ben Gielow, the general counsel for the group.

Right now, drones operate under the same rules as radio-controlled planes. Commercial use is not legal, meaning Good could not, for instance, start a drone wedding-ring delivery service. Congress has mandated that the Federal Aviation Administration come up with rules by 2015 to integrate drones into the nation's airspace. Hobbyists are supposed to fly the devices below 400 feet.

That has not stopped scores of devices from entering the market. There are generally three types of personal drones available.

There is the toy market, which features devices such as the Parrot AR.Drone. It sells for $300 and can be bought online, at the mall or even through the online Apple store. The drone is controlled with an iPhone and operates over Wi-Fi, recording what happens below.

Many newbies start off with the Parrot and graduate to more sophisticated devices, such as the fully autonomous drones sold for upwards of $600 by 3D Robotics, a California company run by Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired magazine, who gave up words for drones.

Anderson said the company, founded in 2009, was generating $5 million a year in sales early on and is now growing 100 percent year over year. His drones can fly for 15 or 20 minutes, with HD cameras attached.

And then there are the $20,000-and-above drones, such as the Falcon UAV that police departments are purchasing. They can fly for hours at a time and coordinate with surveillance systems on the ground.

Good wants to use drones to make commercials and movies, but he knows the nascent personal-drone community has more work to do to make people comfortable with the technology.

"There are people outside the White House probably right now protesting drones," he said. "But we're trying to do really positive stuff with these things, developing uses that are cool and new and exciting. I want to live in the future that is more like The Jetsons and less like The Terminator.”

Depending on whom you ask, commercial drones spark fear or fun 08/18/13 [Last modified: Monday, August 19, 2013 12:15am]
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