UK police officers use a remote control drone fitted with a TV camera to help combat potential crime in 2007. (Christopher Furlong/Getty)ATLANTA—Earlier this month, a woman in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle noticed a small camera-equipped drone buzzing around outside the third-floor window of her home. She sent her husband out to tell the man operating the small aircraft by remote control to leave, but he insisted that it was legal for him to fly above their property.
“We are extremely concerned, as he could very easily be a criminal who plans to break into our house or a peeping-tom,” the woman complained in a note to a local blog.
So was the drone operator right when he insisted that it was legal for him to fly above this woman’s yard?
The question doesn’t have an easy answer, and it’s one that some drone researchers gathered this week in Atlanta for an international conference on unmanned aircraft are grappling with.
Paul Voss, an engineer at Smith College who entered the drone field through his work developing the world’s smallest altitude-controlled meteorological balloons, gave a talk at the conference Wednesday titled “The Case for Protecting Privacy and Property Rights in the Lowermost Reaches of the Atmosphere.” He argued that the drone community should be proactive in addressing privacy concerns now, before the number of drones in flight skyrockets when regulations are eased in the next few years.
At the beginning of his talk, Voss showed a photo of a drone hovering outside the second-floor window of a home, and asked the class, “How many of you think this is public airspace?” Only one person raised his hand.
Voss thinks that one student is probably right, though it's a legal gray area. The Supreme Court ruled in 1946 that the air above the minimum safe altitude of flight “is a public highway” and not subject to trespassing laws. The ruling reversed a lower court’s judgment in favor of a chicken farmer who lost 150 chickens due to fighter planes flying less than 100 feet over his roof on their way to a local airbase. (The chickens were so scared by the thunderous noise that they threw themselves against the wall and killed themselves.)Read More »from Privacy a looming issue as drone regulation loosens