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.

“Someone can buy a quadcopter with a GoPro [camera] attached, and fly it to shoot video. As long as that video is solely for their personal use … it’s considered recreational,” the agency said in a statement. “If the same person flies the same quadcopter and then tries to sell the video, or accepts payments from someone else to shoot the video, that would be a prohibited commercial operation.”

The agency also referred to 1981 federal standards stating that models must avoid flying above highly populated areas, fly no higher than 400 feet, give way to full-size aircraft and take other precautionary steps.

Model airplanes also are almost always flown within visual line of sight of the operator, something that certainly will not hold true for commercial drones. Military drones already are operated from many miles away.

Unmanned aerial systems also are subject to the long-accepted notion that performing an activity for profit opens it up to new laws and regulations. Cooking a meal for friends or styling their hair, for example, requires no government inspections or certifications. Opening up a restaurant or a beauty shop, on the other hand, very much does.

“Collateral damage”

In the years to come, problems are likely to arise when lawmakers, concerned about drones’ ability to infringe on Fourth Amendment and personal privacy rights, draft sweeping legislation that may catch model aircraft in the crossfire.

The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), a nonprofit that supports and promotes model aviation as recreation and the umbrella group of the Chesapeake club, is encouraging its members “to remain vigilant” and help preserve model aircraft from new restrictions.

Each time new legislation is introduced, modelers’ concern grows. At the federal level, more than a half-dozen drone privacy and data-collection measures have been introduced. More than 30 states have introduced their own bills, and local governments, such as the one in Charlottesville, Va., are also tackling the issue.

“I think the model aircraft community is right to be concerned about the potential for collateral damage to their hobby,” said John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, who’s written about the term “drone” and differences with model planes.

“Very few legislators at the state or federal level would intentionally impede model aviation,” he said. “The concern is that there could be unintended consequences to modeling from ‘drone’ privacy bills that might place operational restrictions on [unmanned aircraft] operations, which could end up including some model aircraft if the language is worded overly broadly.”

Fighting for exemptions

Some drone bills have included explicit exemptions for model aircraft, while others haven’t. A recent drone privacy measure put forth by Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Edward Markey, for example, states that “nothing in this act may be construed to apply to model aircraft” as defined by the FAA.

Other proposals lack such vital language.

Legislation in Oregon, placing limits on where drones can fly and what kinds of data they can collect, defines one as an “unmanned flying machine that is capable of capturing images of objects or people on the ground or in the air,” among other criteria.

A model airplane easily could satisfy the definition if it’s outfitted with a camera — a relatively common practice within the hobby community.

“That’s the only thing that I know of that our guys are attaching, either still or video cameras to take pictures of the environment. Or, in some cases, they’re used to give the pilot a virtual view through the cockpit, a first-person view,” said Rich Hanson, AMA’s head of government and regulatory affairs.

The heart of AMA’s efforts in the coming years, Mr. Hanson added, will be to tighten up definitions and distinctions for drones and model aircraft.

“Even though [one piece of legislation] may not be problematic for us, future legislation might be, if we’re considered a drone,” he said.

Very different motivations

While the technical differences are important, the true distinction between a model plane and a drone stems from the motivation of the operator.

The drone industry, by its own admission, is catering to the military, law enforcement and private companies looking to make profits and increase efficiency.

There are very different reasons why Mr. Barnett and his friends in the Chesapeake club gather at their Crownsville field every week.

“I just enjoy this. There’s so much to learn,” he said. Unlike the commercial drone business, dollars and cents never enter into the equation when he’s working with his students.

“I take great offense if someone tries to pay me,” Mr. Barnett said.

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