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Look, Up In The Sky! It's A Drone, Looking At You

A Predator drone takes off on a U.S. Customs Border Protection mission from Fort Huachuca, Ariz. (AP)

Unmanned aircraft — or drones — are playing a large role in U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, but they're starting to show up the the skies above the U.S. as well. Drones are already used to patrol the border with Mexico and now they may soon be coming to a police department near you.

Just consider a video on drone manufacturer AeroVironment's website: Police officers chase a suspect to his home. The suspect runs behind the house, out of sight. The officers open the trunk of their patrol car and pull out what looks like a toy model aircraft with four rotors and a video camera. They launch the aircraft, which allows them to monitor their suspect's movements through a video feed on an iPad-like tablet and, ultimately, to apprehend him.

AeroVironment calls its unmanned aircraft the Qube, and while it may look like something kids would look for under the Christmas tree, it's no toy.

"The Qube is the first solution that AeroVironment has introduced specifically targeting what we identify as the public safety market, and that's really public safety professionals like law enforcement, search and rescue, and first responders," says company vice president Steve Gitlin.

Drones — or unmanned vehicles — have been a success with the military, and companies such as AeroVironment hope to make them an increasingly common sight in this country. Gitlin says the Qube costs just a bit more than a police patrol car, making it a much less expensive alternative to a manned helicopter.

In Mesa County, Colo., the sheriff's department is testing a drone called the Dragonfly X6. Ben Miller, unmanned systems coordinator for the sheriff's office, says it's been especially useful in search operations.

"We had a lost subject in a vegetated creek bed and we were given about a mile length of that creek to search," Miller says. "We completed that search in just a little over an hour with two staff members."

Miller says a typical search using volunteers marching shoulder-to-shoulder would have taken hours. On top of that, he says there have been no bugs with the drones and they're easy to operate.

"At about 2 pounds, the safety risks to people on the ground are rather minimal," he says. "In fact it weighs less than your common Canadian goose."

While law enforcement is a big market for makers of unmanned aircraft systems — known as UAS's — there are many other potential civilian users.

Gretchen West is with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry trade group.

"Utility companies — so oil and gas — [are] using a UAS to do surveillance over a pipeline," she says, as are electrical companies wanting to watch over their electrical wires. West says drones can be used for crop-dusting and tracking livestock. They've already been used for flood mapping in North Dakota, and they could also be used for weather research.

But all those unmanned aircraft have some people a little wary. Privacy advocate Harley Geiger of the Center for Democracy and Technology says drones are basically flying video cameras.

"Drones can easily be equipped with facial recognition cameras, infrared cameras or open Wi-Fi sniffers," Geiger says. "So when people think about drones they shouldn't just think that a telephoto lens is the only feature that can raise a privacy issue."

Nor, says Geiger, is it only law enforcement that could be watching: "The paparazzi, your homeowners' association, your neighbor, a journalist can all sic drones on you as well."

Geiger says people should watch the Federal Aviation Administration, which is currently working on rules to establish standards such as how high drones can fly and what kind of training operators need. He hopes the agency will also address privacy concerns in the proposed regulations that could be released next month.

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Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Lynn Neary.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel. And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: Unmanned aircraft, or drones, are integral to U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. But they're also likely to show up in increasing numbers here at home. Drones are already used to patrol the border with Mexico.

And as NPR's Brian Naylor reports, they may be coming to a police department near you.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The video AeroVironment's website showing the capabilities of its unmanned aircraft called the Qube is a bit like those TV ads for a new toy. Police officers chasing a suspect wearing a black cap arrive at the suspect's home. The suspect runs behind the house, out of sight. The officers open the trunk of their patrol car and pull out what looks almost like a toy model aircraft, with four rotors and a video camera. They launched the drone.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN AEROVIRONMENT VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I have a visual on the suspect. Positive I.D. of a gun in his right hand. I repeat, there is a gun in the suspect's right hand. Proceed with caution.

NAYLOR: The video, of course, has a happy ending. The suspect is apprehended by the officers who are able to monitor his movements, thanks to the video feed on the iPad-like tablet that also serves as the Qube's controller. About all that's missing is the caption: Batteries Not Included. But the Qube is not aimed at kids hoping to find one under their tree on Christmas morning. And while it looks like one, it's no toy.

Steve Gitlin is vice president of the California firm that manufactures the Qube.

STEVE GITLIN: The Qube is the first solution that AeroVironment has introduced specifically targeting what we identify as the public safety market. And that's really public safety professionals like law enforcement, search and rescue, and first responders.

NAYLOR: Drones, or unmanned vehicles, have been a success with the military. And companies like AeroVironment hope to make them an increasingly common sight in the skies this country. Gitlin says the Qube costs just a bit more than a police patrol car, making it a much less expensive alternative to a manned helicopter.

In Mesa County, Colorado, the Sheriff's Department is testing a drone called the Dragonfly X6. Ben Miller, unmanned systems coordinator for the sheriff's office, says it's been especially useful in search operations.

BEN MILLER: We had a lost subject in a vegetated creek bed and we were given about a mile length of that creek to search. And we completed that search in just a little over an hour with two staff members.

NAYLOR: Miller says a typical search using volunteers marching shoulder-to-shoulder would have taken hours. Miller says there have been no bugs with the drones and they're easy to operate.

MILLER: At about two pounds, the safety risks to people on the ground are rather minimal. In fact it, you know, it weighs less than your common Canadian goose.

NAYLOR: While law enforcement is a big market for makers of unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, there are many other potential civilian users. Gretchen West is with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry trade group.

GRETCHEN WEST: Utility companies - so oil and gas - using a UAS to do surveillance over a pipeline; electrical companies that want to do surveillance over some of their electrical wires; the agriculture market. So, you can use UAS for crop testing. You could use UAS for tracking livestock. You've also got...

NAYLOR: All that flying around of unmanned aircraft has some people a little wary. Privacy advocate Harley Geiger, of the Center for Democracy and Technology, says drones are basically flying video cameras.

HARLEY GEIGER: Drones can easily be equipped with facial recognition cameras, infrared cameras, or open WiFi sniffers. And so, when people think about drones, they shouldn't just think that a telephoto lens is the only feature that can raise a privacy issue.

NAYLOR: Nor, says Geiger, is it only law enforcement that could be watching.

GEIGER: The paparazzi, your homeowners' association, your neighbor, a journalist can all sic drones on you, as well.

NAYLOR: Geiger says people should closely watch the FAA. That agency is working on rules to establish standards, such as how high drones can fly and what kind of training operators need. Geiger hopes they'll address privacy concerns, as well. Those proposed regulations could be released next month.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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