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Drones Moving From War Zones To The Home Front


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. A sheriff in North Dakota investigating an ancient crime, cattle rustling, called in some 21st century help - an unarmed MQ-9 Reaper - and with the help of the drone, arrested several suspects. That's the first reported case where U.S. local police use unmanned aircraft but much, much more is likely on the way.

In February, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Part of the law calls on the agency to integrate unmanned aircraft by 2015, and begin with relaxed restrictions. Drones are already used to patrol the Mexican border. Soon, police might use one to follow a getaway car. Oil companies might monitor pipelines. Farmers would be able to watch their crops from above. Paparazzi could get aerial shots of a celebrity wedding.

If you use drones now, what for? Or how do you think you might use one in the future? Give us a call, 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, commentator Ted Koppel on the upcoming elections in France. But first, realities and possibilities of unmanned aircraft. John Villasenor joins us here in Studio 3A. He's a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California Los Angeles; also nonresident senior fellow in governance studies at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. Nice to have you back on the program.

JOHN VILLASENOR: Well, thank you very much, I'm glad to be here.

CONAN: And there are all kinds of unmanned aircraft. They come in all shapes and sizes. Is there a bright line between model aircraft and drones?

VILLASENOR: Well, first of all, I think it's very important to emphasize that model aircraft are not drones. Model aircraft are flown within the line of sight of, and under the control of, a pilot at all times. And so whatever definition someone might adopt of drones, that definition should not include model aircraft.

I think the other thing that's important to emphasize is that many of our military pilots, unmanned aircraft pilots, they - justifiably - aren't particularly thrilled with the term drone because it implies - it can imply sort of a hands-off approach whereas in fact, these folks are extremely skilled aviators who are no less skilled just because they happen not to be in the cockpit. And so they often prefer designations such as UAV, which is unmanned aerial vehicle; or RPA, which is remotely piloted aircraft.

CONAN: But for good or ill, the word drone has become associated with these. And that's the word that's in common usage, so we're going to continue with it.


VILLASENOR: I think it is - for better or for worse, drone is certainly a widely used term.

CONAN: So as they're being used in the public sector, the first thing you come across, the first idea you come across, is that these will be attractive to law enforcement.

VILLASENOR: I think that is true. And I think there are some extremely valuable circumstances where you can imagine - for example, a small-town police force that doesn't have the budget for its own helicopter, or to even charter a helicopter. The ability to put a drone up above a hostage situation could provide some genuinely lifesaving imagery, and makes that within reach - unmanned aircraft make that within reach of pretty much every police department in the country.

CONAN: And it's important to - you've pointed out before, and it's important to emphasize - it's the aircraft that are new; but the kinds of images, the sensors that they use, those are not new. Manned aircraft have used infrared cameras or wireless intercepts on manned aircraft for a long time.

VILLASENOR: That's correct. But of course, some of the concerns that have been raised with respect to privacy, for example, is that now, the combination of these very high-resolution imaging technologies, which have - while they're not new, they've gotten much better in the last couple of years, with the easy, inexpensive availability of unmanned aircraft, does raise some potential concerns with respect to privacy.

CONAN: And the aircraft have capabilities that manned aircraft do not have. Some have the capability to stay airborne for - well, months; maybe even years.

VILLASENOR: That's exactly right. There are some that can sit up in the stratosphere, solar-powered, very, very large but extremely light, sort of gossamer-like, turning slow circles in the sky for - it's already been demonstrated - for weeks at a time.

And there's one that's called a Solar Eagle that's being developed by Boeing, which is aimed to stay up for five years straight. And another point is that, of course, many of these are quite small. And so not the high-altitude ones, but there are also separately, smaller unmanned aircraft, which could never carry a person, but they could dip into places and get vantage points that wouldn't be accessible to a manned aircraft.

CONAN: Going inside buildings, even.

VILLASENOR: It is absolutely possible. You can envision today, for example, there's a drone called the Nano Hummingbird, made by a company called AeroVironment in California, under funding from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, that's two-thirds of an ounce, including the battery and a video camera, and one can only expect that that's - these kinds of things are going to get smaller and smaller. So they'll be the size of a bumblebee and then a fly and maybe even smaller.

CONAN: So, that annoying sound might not be a mosquito. And you mentioned DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. There's also a lot of commercial uses. Boeing is making the Solar Eagle, presumably it thinks it can sell it to customers.

VILLASENOR: Yes, and I think there's an enormous growth in opportunities, commercial opportunities related to UAVs, and in large part, I think that's actually a really good thing. I think the commercial opportunities and the opportunities for innovation are truly amazing. And UAVs are in many ways going to be for our decade what the space program was in the '60s.

The analogy isn't perfect, but the idea that we have all these new technologies and innovations that are going to be developed and that will have these spinoff benefits that go far beyond the world of unmanned aircraft I think is important to recognize.

CONAN: Can you anticipate any of those?

VILLASENOR: Well, for example UAVs, unmanned aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, involve this very sophisticated mix of robotics and in some cases control and sensors and things like that. And some of the technologies that are being developed by the commercial folks, the hobbyists and the military with respect to UAVs, in terms of robotics advancements, have, you know, many, many applications beyond that in terms of controlled, sophisticated systems. For example, you can imagine spinoffs for surgery, for example. But, you know, there's no - and I can't even sit here and pretend I'd think of all the ones, but I'm sure there will be unintended and very valuable consequences.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. If you use drones, what for? If you're thinking about using them, what for? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. We'll start with Dan, Dan with us from Union City in California.

DAN: Hey, I was wondering, given that UAVs and private pilots will be sharing the same airspace, what kind of security or safety considerations are being made, given that a lot of private pilots fly at low altitudes, and UAVs are pretty small?

VILLASENOR: Yeah, well, the - one of the - that's an incredibly important question. And the good news is the best minds in the business are on that problem, and by that I mean the folks at the FAA. One of the provisions of the bill that was enacted in February was that the FAA is, among other things, charged with coming up with a plan, basically, to integrate UAVs in the national airspace. And we can all be quite sure that ensuring safety to the maximum extent possible in a shared airspace is absolutely going to be a top priority.

CONAN: We're beginning to see collision avoidance radar being built into cars. Could that be among the solutions the FAA might - may require for UAVs?

VILLASENOR: Exactly, although I wouldn't necessarily call it radar. The solutions might instead be, for example, GPS-based devices that would broadcast, in a sense, the location of an aircraft, be it manned or unmanned, and that situational awareness could then be used to the benefit of everybody sharing the airspace. And that is happening. In fact, there's already an initiative to equip aircraft with that kind of thing.

CONAN: That's the next-generation air-traffic control system. So it would enable a more efficient air-traffic control, we're told, as well.

VILLASENOR: That's exactly right.

CONAN: Dan, thanks very much for the call. You mentioned the skill of the military pilots who fly these aircraft over Afghanistan or Yemen or Pakistan, or wherever it is. Would - in commercial applications, would the pilots of these vehicles have to be licensed pilots?

VILLASENOR: Again, this is something that we're going to have to wait for the FAA to speak, as it were, before we get all the other - all the details on that. But for unmanned aircraft systems that are operated, for example, over populated areas for commercial purposes, I would expect that there will be some requirements just to make sure these are operated by people who have the skills to do so. But again, the rules haven't been fully formed for that yet.

CONAN: We'll go next to Taria(ph), Taria with us from Phoenix.

TARIA: Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

TARIA: Yeah, I'm just wondering if drones could be used in research with the weather service in monitoring severe storms?

VILLASENOR: Absolutely, that's a terrific observation. And you could send a UAV into a hurricane without any concern for human, you know, human beings getting hurt because of that. Or you could send it into even something like a tornado or the vicinity of a tornado, which of course you would never think about doing with a manned aircraft. So that's one of many, many beneficial applications of these platforms.

TARIA: Awesome.

CONAN: And thanks very much for the call. And clearly they're going to have journalistic applications, as well.

VILLASENOR: It depends on how broad an umbrella we place over journalism. There will be journalistic applications, and some of those will certainly step into and cross over some privacy concerns, as well.

CONAN: We mentioned in the introduction the possibility of paparazzi flying over celebrity wedding, and that's probably just one of the occasions in which they might be used by the less-celebrated part of our profession.

VILLASENOR: Yeah, that's exactly right. I mean, certainly paparazzi have shown no fear, as it were, in terms of being aggressive for acquiring imagery that might lead to more sales. So we expect that when the technology is available to do that that it will be used in that manner, as well as other manners, as well.

CONAN: And I just wonder: On that level, can people - do people have a way to protect their privacy, other than canopies?

VILLASENOR: Well, you know, there's, you know, the current case law for observations from above is not particularly encouraging. It dates from the 1980s. There were a couple of cases which essentially held - from the Supreme Court that essentially held - that observations made from, quote, "public navigable airspace" were fair game, were not violations of the Fourth Amendment and didn't require a warrant.

But there's I think some reason to perhaps reconsider that in light of a world in which it may be so easy for anybody to obtain very, very detailed imagery.

CONAN: Stay with us, more with John Villasenor, nonresident senior fellow in governance studies at the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings, also professor of electrical engineering at UCLA. When we come back, we're going to be following up on some of those privacy concerns we just mentioned with Catherine Crump, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. In the not-too-distant future, more and more drones will cruise the skies of the United States, some shaped like balloons and powered by solar panels, others with wings and jet engines. Some will monitor crops, others pipelines, livestock and crime.

But that doesn't mean they'll be welcomed with open arms. Civil liberties and privacy groups have concerns about who's monitoring what and the information those planes might gather. If you're using drones already, what for? If you'd like to, why? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website, as well. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

John Villasenor, professor of electrical engineering at UCLA, is our guest. Joining us now is Catherine Crump, a staff attorney with the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union. She's with their Speech, Privacy and Technology Project and joins us from her office in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

CATHERINE CRUMP: Thanks, nice to be here.

CONAN: And what questions do you have as this new technology emerges?

CRUMP: Drones have the potential to be a real mixed blessing. There's no question there are many advantages to using drones. You all have talked about some already. But they can also be tools for pervasive surveillance, depending on how they are introduced into the U.S. airspace.

Because drones will be relatively affordable, and as John mentioned, many law enforcement agencies that could never afford a helicopter will have them, they raise the prospect of them just becoming a tool of pervasive surveillance of our movements outside in a way that Americans have never experienced before.

CONAN: What's the difference between being followed by a remotely piloted aircraft or being followed by a plainclothes detective?

CRUMP: There's a significant difference because there are practical limits on the number of people who could be followed by a plainclothes detective. There are so many detectives. It's time-consuming to do that, do so. And that itself is a check on government abuse because it's resource-intensive.

Drones raise the possibility of really blowing that equation out of the water and making it possible for many, many people to be subjected to surveillance.

CONAN: They are also not just used for visual surveillance, they can monitor cell phone transmissions, they can pick up emanations from your computer.

CRUMP: All of that's true, and they can actually also be armed with various types of weapons, and police departments inside the U.S. expressed an interest in being able to use various forms of non-lethal force on those drones. So they raise a number of privacy concerns but also safety concerns and could shape, you know, the - what it means to be out of doors in the U.S.

CONAN: John Villasenor mentioned one Supreme Court case earlier, in which they detected, by aerial observation, marijuana plants growing in somebody's backyard, and the Supreme Court said, well, too bad, that's open observation, you're out of luck. In another case, though, not from the air, but police departments detected large, anomalous amounts of heat inside somebody's house and suspected it was a grow house and busted it. It was, but they threw the search out, as it were, because this was an intrusion.

CRUMP: That's right. And I think how courts handle drones in the future is a really open question. I think there is a strong argument that to the extent drones are being used to learn about protected spaces, like homes and offices, there's a good argument that law enforcement will need to get a warrant in order to use drones in that way.

But, you know, the Supreme Court has also suggested that new and increasingly powerful technologies may merit more scrutiny than older technologies. And if you - you have a situation where drones are becoming sort of routine tools of surveillance in a way that helicopter overflights never were. I think you may see the - see courts being skeptical of law enforcement's ability to use this.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in. This is Mark(ph), and Mark is with us from Norman, Oklahoma.

MARK: Hi, my name is Mark, and I own a computer company here in Norman, and I also have a background in astronomy. So I have some understanding of modern optics. And I'm concerned that there won't be sufficient oversight on drones because the capabilities are such you could use infrared imaging to see inside of houses. You could have 15, 20 drones all flying, projecting images to an array of computer screens for one single investigator could be watching the output of dozens of drones simultaneously.

And the ability for a private individual to invade privacy, as well. You know, you have options for corporate espionage. And we've seen cases with Google and Facebook where their privacy policies were, you know, obscure or not accurate.

And I think that there needs to be some very serious consideration. This technology provides us with tremendous possibility for the future in protecting our borders, or search and rescue type capabilities, but I think it also provides a tremendous capability for abuse, as well. I think we need to be very careful.

And if you look historically, whenever a new technology comes out, people tend to jump on it very quickly without necessarily thinking it through, what's going to happen, how are people going to abuse this, and there aren't sufficient protections in place, I don't think.

CONAN: And Catherine Crump, you and John Villasenor earlier raised some of the questions about state abuse, as it were, police abuse. But Mark raises a point about private users. Is that a concern, as well?

CRUMP: I think that can be a concern, but it's a difficult one to analyze because on the one hand, now, individuals can have in their possession surveillance tools that are far more powerful than, you know, perhaps even the government had 30 or 40 years ago. On the other hand, you know, drones are cameras, and we've always protected the right of people to take photographs of what's going on around them out of doors.

So I think there are going to be, in addition to Fourth Amendment concerns with how we regulate this technology, also First Amendment free speech concerns.

CONAN: First Amend - how would that come into it?

CRUMP: There are limits on the degree to which the government can restrict people's ability to engage in free speech. It's clear that taking photographs in public places is protected from intrusion by the government under the First Amendment. And to the extent drones are being used in such a manner, there may be limits on the ability of government to regulate private uses of drones under our Constitution.

CONAN: So I should go into the sale of lead-lined awnings for celebrity weddings?


CRUMP: Yes. I mean, you know, I should say there are laws of general application that may come into play here. So for example, there are anti-stalking laws that limit the ability of, you know, journalists and others to follow individuals in great detail. I mean, of course those laws are quite limited. But it will be interesting to see how they adjust to a new world in which people can purchase powerful surveillance technology such as drones.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Catherine Crump, we appreciate your time.

CRUMP: Thank you.

CONAN: Catherine Crump is staff attorney with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, with us from her office in New York. And to reinforce what she said earlier, this email from Robert in Rockford, Illinois: I have begun using my six-rotor remote-controlled helicopter for recreational low-altitude photography and videography.

I control it with a remote, first-person-view video system that allows me to pilot the craft as if I was in the cockpit. As a professional pilot, I find it a fun, inexpensive way to get an aerial view and keep my skills sharp when I can't fly a full-scale aircraft. And John Villasenor, that sounds more like the model aircraft than a drone but illustrative of the capabilities.

VILLASENOR: Yeah, well, I don't know that it would necessarily be something that would be within the scope of a model aircraft if the gentleman is flying it, for example, beyond the line of sight. That would fall outside the safety programming of organizations like the Academy of Model Aeronautics, which address model aircraft. So I don't know that it would necessarily be the right characterization.

But more generally, yeah. I mean, his use of the unmanned aircraft illustrates both some of the advantages in terms of the ability to acquire commercially useful imagery, but also some of the challenges the FAA faces as they regulate not this particular individual, who I'm sure knows what he's doing, but just in general, the ability of people to fly these things and where they can fly them and over what and subject to what rules. All that is - or much of that is still to be determined.

CONAN: And also suggests these regulations and these new laws will not be a moment too soon. People are beginning to employ this technology, whether it's appropriately regulated or not.

VILLASENOR: Yes, and one would hope that it will be employed responsibly, although the large numbers that will likely be involved mean that we are certainly going to see some hiccups along the way.

CONAN: Email, another one, this from a listener: I live with my family on a small horse farm, under 150 acres. Though we still have fences that break down and horses that get loose, with only a handful of people, it can be very difficult to find exactly where the horses got loose. I can see an unmanned drone being incredibly useful to locate the break and let us patch it before more horses get loose.

VILLASENOR: Absolutely. That's - you know, especially when you're trying to survey large areas, there's not much better than being able to get up above and take a look.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jeremy, Jeremy with us from Casper in Wyoming.

JEREMY: Yeah, actually I just wanted to call in. I'm actually associated with the sheriff's department here. We - actually, I'm part of the special response team, which is essentially the SWAT team here. And we have actually looked at the legalities and the implementation of drones. We've actually purchased one drone. Your guest might be familiar with it. It's called the Parrot AR drone, which was actually put out by a French company and is actually operated off of either an iPhone or an iPad.

The problem that we've run into so far, and we found out federally there are actually federal guidelines for - through the FAA for anyone that is going to be working for a governmental agency to operate a drone. Actually, you do have to go a drone pilot school. There's very few of them throughout the United States. One of them is actually in south - or I believe in North Dakota, excuse me.

And in order to operate those under the guise of a law enforcement organization or any kind of governmentally operated organization, you have to have those pilot licenses in place before you can ever even purchase the drone.

And the other portion of it, when you were talking about the implementation as far as public use, it is very, very difficult for a single individual - or actually even a group of individuals - to get their hands on the type of military equipment, military drone-style equipment, that's out there right now, basically because it's so cost-prohibitive.

When we started searching for the drones that we were - that could do the job we were looking at as far as aerial surveillance for a hostage situation or something of that sort, you're looking at in upwards of 500,000 to in upwards two to three million dollars for the - by the time you can get the education, the training, the pilot's license and all the computer or software you need to be able to pilot that drone safely and effectively.

CONAN: So relatively affordable, but let's put the emphasis on the relatively.

JEREMY: Right. That's correct. And, you know, right now we've basically been experimenting with using the small, low-level, low-altitude, you know, up to maybe 50, 60 feet - that Parrot AR.Drone is almost like a sentry. So we can actually place it on, you know, on the corner of a building and just allow it to be, you know, an extra set of eyes for the commander or for whoever wants to keep track of that camera. And we can do so and take photos and stuff from an iPad which can essentially be beamed back to whoever wants to take a picture of them.

So I mean, the implementation or the - everything is there for law enforcement right now. The problem is, is that, you know, a lot of people don't understand that there are actually federal FAR guidelines for the use of drones. And those people that are actually flying like the one-person type (unintelligible) email about the FTV system for their own personal RC airplane...

CONAN: Right.

JEREMY: ...actually, that stuff is actually - I mean, to be (unintelligible) that's actually illegal through the FAA's guidelines right now.

CONAN: Well, it may be, unless he has a special dispensation, which we don't know that he might...

JEREMY: That is correct. That is correct. I mean, unless they've got the special, you know, special license and they're operating outside of any possible controlled airspace, they can actually be fined for such.

CONAN: Jeremy, those are all interesting questions. So, John Villasenor, clearly police departments are beginning to experiment with this and as we've mentioned in the introduction, beginning to use it in some specified circumstances as well.

VILLASENOR: Yeah. I think one important thing to add to the gentleman's comments is that he mentioned some very expensive platforms. But I think the term drone is so broad that it encompasses not only things like - that might cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. But at the lower end of the cost spectrum you have things that are maybe $1,000 or even less that are fully capable of - UAVs - that are fully capable of, you know, providing overhead imagery and are obviously much more accessible to a broader set of possible buyers.

CONAN: Jeremy, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JEREMY: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about drones now and in the future. Our guest is John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California at Los Angeles. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And one more question before we let you go, this from Fred: What small companies are making these aircraft? I'm aware of AVAV, a stock symbol. What other publicly traded companies are available for us to participate in the future of this inevitability?

You mentioned some of these companies. Apparently a lot of companies are making them.

VILLASENOR: Yeah, there's an awful lot. First of all, again, it depends kind of what end of the spectrum you're talking about. The big defense contractors like Boeing and Northrop and companies like that are certainly involved. This company in California called AeroVironment has been extremely innovative with some of the things they've been doing. There are - and this was alluded to in one of the earlier callers - there's an enormous global industry in this. So the United States is not - far from the only country involved.

So there's many, many companies. There's a robust hobbyist community, some of whom are going to certainly get - start doing commercial activities. There's a company, called 3D Robotics, that sells systems related to UAV. So a huge and growing enterprise.

CONAN: Some may have some questions about one other factor, and that's one we explored, I think, with you on the program, after a man in Boston was arrested for allegedly plotting to fly explosives into the Capitol aboard model aircraft, not drones. But in that context, we explored the possible use of drones for terrorism. We'll put a link to that program on our website if you wanted to hear more about that possibility. But we have to think about that as well. John Villasenor, we know you've got another appointment. We appreciate your time today.

VILLASENOR: Thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: John Villasenor, in addition to his role at the University of California at Los Angeles, a nonresident senior fellow in governance studies at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, with us here in Studio 3A. But let's get one more caller in on the conversation. Brett's(ph) with us, calling from Riverside in California.

BRETT: Hi. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon. Go ahead, please.

BRETT: Hi. I actually work with Science Museum Oklahoma, which is an informal science center in Oklahoma City, and we've been using unmanned aerial systems, the vehicles, as well as some of the robots that ground forces will use on the ground to teach science to our young people. And I like the correlation you made with the unmanned aerial systems and NASA.

I think that with the decreases in funding for NASA, and kind of a decreased emphasis in space exploration, our youth are needing something else that they can really latch onto as not only something that's really cool that's happening with science, but it's also something that is a possible career for them to go into the science field. So...

CONAN: So what kind of experiments have you set up?

BRETT: Well, we've been doing a lot of just the hands-on with showing them - we have some decommissioned systems that have been donated from Boeing. We actually have some that go back as far as the '50s. So up close, they can feel, touch, see these systems. And then also using some of the optics and stuff. We, you know, we send up a weather balloon to show resolution video from really high altitudes and things like that to get them kind of involved in the components that go on the aircraft as well.

CONAN: There must be some of those moments when they see some of those images being downlinked that they're, well, pretty astonished.

BRETT: Yes, they are. They're blown away. And it's going to be able to put practical applications to science, which is our goal, is to reveal the wonder and relevance of science. And that relevance is something that we sometimes get lost - gets lost in the conversation.

CONAN: Gets all abstract and formulaic and you forget that this is actually something that is applied to everybody's life.

BRETT: Exactly.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the phone call. Good luck with the project.

BRETT: Thank you.

CONAN: Again, there's more links at our website to previous programs we've done about drone technology. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.