Drone Wars: Civilians push back
Hide from them, shoot them down or just have them banned? Privacy fears are sparking widespread rejection of civilian drones by the US public
"THE first guy who uses a weapon to bring down a drone that's hovering over his house is going to become a folk hero in this country." So said commentator Charles Krauthammer on Fox News in May last year, after the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said that drones will soon be licensed for law enforcement and commercial surveillance work.
Krauthammer's words seem to have captured the mood of a nation. Privacy fears are sparking a backlash against the use of drones in civilian airspace.
Seattle's police force was forced to abandon its drone programme last month, following anger from residents. Meanwhile, Virginia has imposed a two-year moratorium on the use of drones by police and at least 13 other states are now deliberating similar anti-drone legislation.
But some privacy advocates have gone beyond lobbying their local councillor. Online discussion groups have sprung up about what kind of drone countermeasures could prevent privacy invasion from the air. Their ideas range from the absurd – wearing drone-camera-proof clothing or using stunt kites to tangle their rotors – to the more plausible – jamming radio-control frequencies or shooting the drones out of the sky.
The FAA's announcement on 14 February that it is pressing ahead with the opening of six test centres for civilian drones will only have reinforced such sentiments. After Krauthammer's comments, pro-gun shock jock Alex Jones ran a video on his website, Infowars.com, which shows him visiting a sprawling Texas ranch to practise shooting down the coming wave of drones with assault rifles.
Steve Hindi of Geneva, Illinois, who runs an animal rights charity, has first-hand experience of what happens when those being watched by a drone decide to do something about it. He uses eight-rotor drones, which cost about $8000 each, to expose a controversial type of pigeon shoot in which birds are ejected from a box on the ground and shot with a shotgun. "We've had drones shot down... losing one permanently, and twice more they were hit but made it back," Hindi says. He flies his drones beyond shotgun range but says the shooters are switching to rifles to down his drones. "Mister Krauthammer is completely wrong. The shooters are like the people who wanted to ban the internet in case people learned something," he says. "They are not folk heroes. They are cowards."
So what happens next? A shake-up of the law is needed, says Peter van Blyenburgh, head of drone trade body Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, based in Paris, France. He says small drones, like the $300 Parrot AR Drone, sold as a toy, could become a real neighbourhood nuisance, provoking risky shoot-downs. "Big Texas landowners now talk of firing shoulder-fired rockets at drones," he says. "They are in cloud cuckoo land."
In May, the European Commission's Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems panel, on which van Blyenburgh sits, will investigate if the rules that govern radio-controlled model aircraft can be enforced on users of "toy" drones. This could go some way towards addressing the concerns of privacy advocates, van Blyenburgh believes. "Model planes cannot take a camera anywhere near to a house or garden," he says. "If they do, the operator can't get public liability insurance. That could apply to these toys, too."
This article appeared in print under the headline "Drone backlash begins"