A MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle prepares...

Drone aircraft are finding new civilian uses, far from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. FastCompany Magazine reported this week that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is pushing the Federal Government to legalize the use of drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV‘s). There’s now some confusion over the legality of these unarmed flyers. The MPAA has been lobbying in Washington for approval. It’s position is that the use of drones will be cheaper, safer and more effective than user helicopters or cranes. This position, of course, is not without controversy. Crane operators and helicopter companies who specialize in this type of work stand to lose significant business.

The FAA has planes to privatize the use of drones entirely by 2015 and estimates that 30,000 of them could be in private hands by the end of the decade. Drones are being currently, and quietly used by film companies to scout locations and by real estate brokers to showcase locations. Drones have already be used to sell some significant properties in LA, and a number of production companies have developed specialized flyers produced specifically for use in the film industry. One company, MI6 Films, was reportedly issued a spoken cease and desist order by the FAA

In addition to the commercial uses of drones, there are numerous potential law enforcement benefits. But what about the privacy implications? Right now, we’re having enough trouble keeping track of what Google Earth is doing and that one company, admittedly a world-wide player, is causing innumerable cases of indigestion among privacy advocates all on its own. Can you imagine what will happen when there are literally thousands of drones licensed by the FAA, not to much the thousands that will almost certainly fly unlicensed?

In the Senate hearings on drones that were held yesterday, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) acknowledged that there were 15 drone programs being run out of 5 government agencies. A report from the Congressional Research Service also weighed in on the subject:

“With the ability to house high-powered cameras, infrared sensors, facial recognition technology, and license plate readers, some argue that drones present a substantial privacy risk. Undoubtedly, the government’s use of drones for domestic surveillance operations implicates the Fourth Amendment and other applicable laws.”

“Additionally,” CRS said, “there are a host of related legal issues that may arise with this introduction of drones in U.S. skies. These include whether a property owner may protect his property from a trespassing drone; how stalking, harassment, and other criminal laws should be applied to acts committed with the use of drones; and to what extent federal aviation law could preempt future state law.”

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