I personally haven't had any issues with people having privacy issues with our plane. But mostly we're not flying over cities. We're out in the middle of nowhere. —Austin Jensen, USU research engineer
SALT LAKE CITY — The public is well aware of unmanned aerial drones, those military eyes in the sky that can pick out targets and track down terrorists.
Now the technology industry, armed with the promise of a possible loosening of FAA restrictions, is moving toward civilian applications, bringing new opportunities but also raising questions about privacy.
The small pilot-less aircraft could be a boon to law enforcement seeking surveillance, or media outlets reaching for coverage. Also real estate businesses, construction, architecture or a myriad of others could find uses for the unmanned, camera-toting aircraft.
Ryan Fisher, a local photographer, showed off some of that technology at the Lehi Model Airplane Park in Lehi. One of the drones on display was a tiny chopper with a standard GoPro camera.
"It's safe and reliable, so it can be used in all sorts of different applications," Fisher said.
He uses it as a mobile camera platform, shooting for outfits like Discovery Channel and National Geographic. With precision remote control, he can even fly it inside a building.
"What's great about the technology in the last few years is it's become so light and so small, and actually affordable," Fisher said.
In Cache Valley, a drone operated by Utah State University flies a preprogrammed flight plan taking pictures with two cameras.
"Basically, we take the images afterwards and we can make maps and all sorts of things, much like what you can see on Google Earth," explained USU research engineer Austin Jensen.
It's an academic drone, flying for the sake of science and agriculture. Jensen said it's used mostly in "ecological or environmental applications."
"A lot of what we do is over rivers and wetlands, mapping vegetation, looking at habitat for different types of animals," he said.
But there are many other applications for drones. People can see what a bird sees when plunging from cliff tops. Drones can provide a more intimate view of buildings and landscaping than one could get from a helicopter with a pilot.
In sports photography a drone can give viewers a player’s point of view. Drones in promotional videos offer an expensive Hollywood look without cranes and dollies; simply, quickly and cheaply. And a drone can definitely spark up the action, moving with the characters almost wherever they go, even if it's in and out of a building.
In the age of computers that can coordinate swarms of drones, the only limit on possible uses is the reach of the imagination. But there are also practical benefits; drones can go where humans wouldn't dare, like into Japan's heavily damaged Fukushima nuclear plant to survey damage.
"From law enforcement, SWAT teams, it gives you an eye in the sky, a perspective that nobody else can see," Fisher said.
For the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, unmanned drones with surveillance cameras will patrol the skies above Olympic Stadium.
The sky's-the-limit reach of the technology has some urging caution. The American Civil Liberties Union said public discussion and debate is needed before law enforcement starts peering into backyards or into second-story windows.
"Our privacy laws are not strong enough to ensure that new technology will be used responsibly," said Karen McCreary, executive director of the ACLU of Utah. "We shouldn't have the watchful eye of the government upon us all the time."
Jensen said, "I personally haven't had any issues with people having privacy issues with our plane. But mostly we're not flying over cities. We're out in the middle of nowhere."
Safety regulations are currently the biggest obstacle for drones. Fisher said FAA regulations are restrictive and too vague, unlike other countries where he flies his drones regularly.
"It's so unfortunate that there's restrictions on this that have put several companies out of business," Fisher said.
But changes are coming. Congress ordered the FAA to come up with new drone regulations by 2015.
"I think there's enough interest. Enough people want this sort of technology, and want it to work out, that we'll figure out a way to make it safe for everyone," Jensen said.
Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc