Model aircraft owners drawn into privacy debate on drones

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CROWNSVILLE, Md. - Steve Barnett has been flying unmanned aerial systems for more than 30 years — long before the word “drone” started making global headlines.

But now, the 65-year-old Army veteran and model-airplane enthusiast finds himself answering new questions as his hobby gets dragged into a white-hot national debate.

“At no time has the word ‘surveillance’ ever been used. That’s not the reason for us to be out here,” said Mr. Barnett, an instructor with the 80-member Chesapeake Bay Radio Control Club, as he took a break from flying his craft over the group’s sprawling field near Annapolis.

Even just a few years ago, model pilots such as Mr. Barnett wouldn’t have had to address the issue of drones or the Fourth Amendment. That’s quickly changing because of public distress about anything that flies overhead without a human pilot on board.

Mr. Barnett has kept an eye on the rise of the domestic drone industry; more importantly, he is keenly aware of how the cutting-edge crafts are inspiring new federal legislation, state privacy protection laws and other regulations.

“It’ll eventually impact us,” he said, as one of his students worked on a model plane nearby.

A thin, blurry line

The distinctions between model airplanes and drones may seem apparent to most — models like Mr. Barnett’s are used for Saturday-morning recreation, while drones are used for military operations, law enforcement or research. By 2015, drones legally will become money-making tools for private industry, such as agriculture, the media and other commercial sectors.

But in reality, the divide is much more nuanced, and there’s a growing fear that model aircraft could become a casualty in the unfolding U.S. drone boom.

There’s virtually no physical difference, whether it be size or some other factor, between what constitutes a model aircraft and a drone. Both clearly fall within the definition of an unmanned aerial system.

“You could have a model that’s the size of a Cessna,” said Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the drone industry’s leading trade group. “The size is not the distinction. It’s what’s being collected, the data, that is critical.”

In last year’s Federal Aviation Administration reform act, which laid out a timetable for integrating drones in U.S. airspace, lawmakers included a definition of model aircraft, describing them as “capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere; flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft; and flown for hobby or recreational purposes.”

To see just how easy it is to cross the paper-thin line between what’s a model and what isn’t, one need only consider aerial photography.

Hobbyists have been strapping cameras to their model aircraft for decades, using them to snap pictures of a mountainside, a sunrise or sunset. Merely taking such photos — or video recordings — isn’t an issue.

But when money or other compensation is introduced, the FAA explained, things get sticky.

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