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It's a bird. It's a plane. Actually, it's a drone.
And now those unmanned aircraft, best known for being used by the U.S. to kill terrorism suspects overseas, have a new state-of-the-art feature: a code of conduct.
The trade group for companies that make and operate drones has issued the code partly, at least, in response to privacy concerns. That's because these gizmos don't just target Taliban in the mountains of Afghanistan; they're used domestically for everything from law enforcement to crop-dusting.
"The emergence of unmanned aircraft systems represents one of the most significant advancements to aviation, the scientific community, and public service since the beginning of flight," Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said in a statement Monday on the group's website. "With a commitment to safety, professionalism and respect, we can ensure unmanned aircraft are integrated responsibly into civil airspace."
The group says the code is a set of guidelines for "safe, non-intrusive operations." Privacy concerns figure prominently. The group says, "We will respect the privacy of individuals. ... We will respect the concerns of the public as they relate to unmanned aircraft operations."
The code goes on to say: "As with any revolutionary technology, there will be mishaps and abuses; however, in order to operate safely and gain public acceptance and trust, we should all act in accordance with these guiding themes and do so in an open and transparent manner."
Not everyone is impressed by the new code.
"I think it's really important that they're paying attention to privacy. That's to their credit," Chris Calabrese, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberites Union, told The Associated Press. "But I can't imagine they expect this to quell privacy concerns."
He added: "I think Congress needs to step in. This is new technology. It's potentially incredibly invasive. People are profoundly discomforted by the idea of drones monitoring them."
Drones soared into the spotlight when the Obama administration increased use of the aircraft to target terrorism suspects, but the civilian drone industry has been growing for some time.
Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, wrote an exhaustive piece last month on the domestic drone boom. The full piece is well worth reading, but this paragraph stands out:
"Look up into America's skies today and you might just see one of these drones: small, fully autonomous, and dirt-cheap. On any given weekend, someone's probably flying a real-life drone not far from your own personal airspace. (They're the ones looking at their laptops instead of their planes.) These personal drones can do everything that military drones can, aside from blow up stuff. Although they technically aren't supposed to be used commercially in the U.S. (they also must stay below 400 feet, within visual line of sight, and away from populated areas and airports), the FAA is planning to officially allow commercial use starting in 2015."
But as NPR's Brian Naylor reported last December, domestic drone use is raising privacy concerns. One privacy advocate interviewed in Brian's story notes that drones can be equipped with facial recognition cameras, infrared cameras or open Wi-Fi sniffers, and they can be used by paparazzi, your homeowners association, your neighbor or (gulp) a journalist.
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