- The Washington Times - Monday, July 2, 2012

The unmanned eye in the sky now has a rule book to follow.

The drone industry Monday released its first voluntary “code of conduct” policy, designed to protect the privacy of those on the ground and to ensure that the burgeoning sector adheres to legitimate safety standards.

Released by the Arlington-based Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the guidelines focus on three principles: safety, professionalism and respect. They include promises that the industry will properly test all drones before flight, comply with all laws governing aircraft, respect the privacy of all individuals and work to better educate the public about the crafts’ beneficial uses.

Drones are used by the military, law enforcement and other government agencies, but they will be available for commercial companies to use in 2015, with the most likely uses then including surveying by agriculture and mining companies.

The association’s code, as well as membership in the association itself, is voluntary, and the code specifies no penalties for a company that violates or never adopts them.

Critics argue that the new standards, while well-intended, offer no guarantee that an individual drone operator will avoid, for example, peeking into someone’s bedroom.

“What respecting privacy means to one person is going to be totally different than what it means to someone else,” said Amie Stepanovich, an attorney with the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

“The problem with self-imposed codes of conduct is that they’re voluntary. If somebody decides at first that they want to follow these provisions and then later decides they don’t want to, they can change their mind. And [the standards] are totally open to interpretation,” she said.

The potential of abusive drone use by governments and eventually by private citizens or companies has raised serious concerns among both federal and local lawmakers.

Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, has introduced legislation reaffirming Americans’ Fourth Amendment protections against unwarranted government intrusion by drones.

“When I have friends over for a barbecue, the government drone is not on the invitation list. I do not want a drone monitoring where I go,” he said in a recent op-ed for CNN.com. “We should not be treated like criminals or terrorists while we are simply conducting our everyday lives. We should not have our rights infringed upon by unwarranted police-state tactics.”

The Seattle City Council is working with the city’s police department to establish an ordinance detailing exactly how drones can be used for law enforcement and what judicial approvals must be granted before they take off.

The American Civil Liberties Union is also helping craft the measure, city spokeswoman Laura Lockard said Monday.

While the use of drones by police departments and other government bodies has gotten all the attention, more serious problems could emerge in three years.

Beginning in September 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration will issue private permits for unmanned aircraft.

Virtually anyone, including major U.S. corporations and laptop pilots, may be able to get their hands on one. The most likely markets, analysts say, will include the agriculture and energy sectors.

“Think of industries that have large physical assets. Oil and gas pipeline owners can inspect their assets this way,” said Matt Waite, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and founder of the school’s Drone Journalism Lab, a first-of-its-kind project to study the increasing use of unmanned aircraft and its impact on privacy.

Beyond farmers and oil-and-gas companies, Mr. Waite said other potential customers for drones could include housing developers and news organizations, with the latter potentially leading to difficult decisions for journalists and their editors.

“What happens when there is a compelling public interest to something and the government is restricting access to it?” he asked rhetorically, raising the scenario of a newspaper or TV network using a drone to surveil past a security cordon or in military space. “Is there a First Amendment argument to using a UAV? I don’t know.”

While conventional aircraft such as airplanes and helicopters are used routinely for surveillance, analysts think unmanned drones likely will pose new problems.

Most are much smaller, enabling them to fly undetected. They’re also able to stay airborne for longer periods of time.

The most important distinction, analysts say, is their price, much lower than the cost of planes or choppers. The customer base for small drones thus may become almost limitless.

“Any range of people could want these, all the way down to an ordinary person who just wants a toy to play with,” Ms. Stepanovich said.

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