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Summary:

In September, a man crashed a quadcopter on a busy street in New York City. Last month, I accidentally shot footage of the inside of someone’s apartment. Drones cause problems, but the technology is too exciting to write off.

3D Robotics Iris drone

I recently spent a week flying the DJI Phantom 2 Vision quadcopter. It’s a 2.5 pound drone with an attached camera and easy flight controls, and I loved it.

The Phantom 2 Vision quadcopter. Photo courtesy of DJI

The Phantom 2 Vision quadcopter. Photo courtesy of DJI

But I also had repeat unsettling occurrences while flying the drone. The first was, of course, the crashes. I hit a car. I botched a landing and slammed down on a stranger’s roof. But more unsettling was the accidental footage and pictures I caught of the inside of people’s apartments.

The experience taught me that a camera attached to a flying machine could have a bigger impact than we all imagine on the way we live.

Drones are dangerous

When they hear the word “drone,” most people think of the bomb-dropping variety. Those aren’t landing in consumer hands anytime soon.

Personal drones are smaller, lighter and are most likely carrying a camera. But when an accident occurs and one is dropped from several hundred feet in the air, they can still be dangerous.

In late September, a man flew a Phantom over New York City for about three minutes before a collision with a building caused it to crash several feet in front of a pedestrian. It’s beautiful footage, but the pilot repeatedly bounces the aircraft off of buildings, creating a series of dangerous situations.

After a week with the Phantom, it’s easy to imagine how a situation like that can happen. As many safety features as you build into a piece of technology, human and machine glitches (or recklessness) still occur.

Right now, the only rules governing private drone use state they cannot be flown higher than 400 feet or near an airport. It is illegal to use them to make money. Congress had directed that they be made legal for commercial use by late 2015, but the FAA delayed setting firm rules to allow more time to consider the implications. Several states have already enacted or considered placing rules on hobby and commercial drones.

It’s easy to invade people’s privacy

In the dense streets of San Francisco, it’s not uncommon to catch glimpses inside the apartments of the people who reside across the street from you or live at street level. But people who live on higher floors can have a general expectation of privacy, despite their blinds being open.

DJI Phantom 2 QuadcopterThey can’t when drones are around. In one video — totally by accident — I filmed a room where you can see a couch that someone has been using as a bed, perhaps revealing an illegal housing situation or personal drama; or maybe just a house guest.

It’s a reality that will inform, and limit, my future use of drones. When I use my DSLR, I’m very aware of others’ privacy and never invade that space. That should extend to drone photography too. It will also inform how people live in a world where drones are more common. Blinds will be closed more often. Like a handheld camera, it’s certain someone will use them in an inappropriate way.

They’re awesome

Despite the dangers, drones have a place. They make taking incredible aerial videos and photos easy, which doesn’t just appeal to hobbyists. Agriculture has emerged as an area where they are already being adopted because of the benefits. A drone can tell a farmer which crops are ripe or where a fence needs to be mended. They could totally replace reporting from a helicopter for TV reporters or be programmed to follow and film the football in an NFL game.

Parrot_AR.Drone_2

The Parrot AR.Drone 2.0. Photo courtesy of Nicolas Halftermeyer

Like any new medium, drones are going to cause some friction. But they’re also going to provide a very cool new way to create. A world where photographers shoot weddings from the air and drones deliver packages (and maybe tacos) is a world in which I can’t wait to live.

  1. Chuck Shotton Sunday, December 1, 2013

    Why does the media insist on calling model aircraft “drones”? The general public has been flying radio controlled aircraft in some form or another since the 1930s. Hobbyists pioneered everything that has ultimately been militarized and used for surveillance or otherwise. So why is it a sudden revelation (apparently just to the media) that private individuals are operating radio controlled aircraft? It’s only been about 90 years since the first one flew. Way to be on top of the story!

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    1. Great comment.

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    2. True. I’ve been flying a Kyosho Concept 60 and Thunder Tiger Raptor 90 with camera since 2000 and others have done thus much earlier.

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    3. Second that

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  2. It’s a flying chainsaw with a camera on it. And it can say the hell away from me and my neighbourhood.

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    1. Ooh my what an overactive imagination you have.

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  3. Now the Drone next Drone countermeasures.
    something like a superglue spray gun, a bolus net or a big fly squatter would take out snooping invaders peeping Tom toys!

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  4. I like the idea, but pricvacy must be held in supreme consideration above any commercia or personal/private use. Trust me when I say that if this ever comes to fruition and my privacy is invaded, I will destroy that drone.

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    1. I don’t like the idea of electronic peeping Toms buzzing around our skies en mass. Last thing we need are these things endangering the public safety- they are no different than any other RC aircraft, and should be used at a designated flying area as such. If one does ever invade my personal space, I would be happy to determine if both it and it’s irresponsible operator would “blend”. (sorry, sir, here’s your $1500 quad copter reduced to dust! I guess it blended after all!)
      No different than irresponsible use of a laser pointer. There’s a place and time.
      And, BTW, “F” the use of these by the powers that be to take away my privacy!
      How much more liberty will YOU be willing to part with? And for what, exactly? Is it genuinely worth the sacrifice? I for one don’t like where this is inevitably headed. (mark my words!)

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    2. This feels like classic freakonomics – you are worrying about the wrong privacy issues.

      - Google knows everything you search for and reads all of your mail.
      - Facebook knows who all your friends are.
      - Your ISP knows about every bit of porn you watch.
      - Amazon, your credit card, and your Safeway club card knows every item you buy.
      - Your cell phone and credit card track everywhere you go.

      And you are worried about a minute possibility that a drone or a streetview car snap a picture of you probably doing nothing interesting?

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  5. I wonder how long before they are banned from populated areas. I’m sure it’s fun, but if someone flies one into my personal airspace I’ll club it to the ground with a garden implement of destruction.

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    1. read United States v. Causby to see how much personal airspace we are actually entitled to

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      1. I will feel threatened and stand my ground.

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  6. You say its illegal to make money from flying them? Please explain. I thought Realtors and film makers were using them..

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  7. First drones are not illegal, there are no laws in effect today that prohibit there use. The FAA has stated that they should not be used in commercial work, but has not done what’s needed to make it law.

    Second, flying systems are dangerous, way too many people like yourself think they can spend a week and then fly these over public places. Flying drones or Remote controlled systems take months and years of flight time to master, not days or weeks. Too many idiots like yourself are taking too much risk flying these in anything but a controlled airfield.

    Third, I can invade your high rise apartment any time I want to without a drone. It’s called a telephoto lens . I can see into your space from the building next door or blocks away if I use a larger zoom.

    Drone histaria is highly over rated and mostly mis understood..

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    1. I have to agree with respect to your statements on privacy. People have a very uninformed view of what is actually private most of the time. Are you on the street? Outside? Have your blinds open? It’s not private and any assumption you may have that someone cannot view you is based on a false sense of security. You just regard it as unlikely that someone is glancing through your windows or standing on a taller building looking into your backyard.

      If you want privacy either make a legitimate effort to keep out of view from people in public areas or accept that while it might be unlikely that someone is looking, you’re quite exposed if they are.

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  8. No drones have not been around for 90 years these are not radio controlled helicopter. They are programed to fly a specif rout and can have their course changed while in mid air but the actual flying is done by computer.
    Thats why any idiot can fly these things instead if someone who actually knows how to fly. Please get your facts stright before you go on you mmisinformed rants.

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    1. wow. Your ignorance is frustrating. I have been flying model aircraft for ten years and own the “drone” or quadcopter the author was flying and I have flown several other quadcopters. None of them are flown by computers. They are controlled by the pilot the same as any other rc aircraft. The closest thing to a computer flying it is a feature that returns the aircraft to the take off location. And any idiot can fly these quadcopters because unlike helicopters or airplanes they are very stable and relatively easy to fly.
      You are the misinformed one.

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      1. flight paths can be set up via way points, so in a sense they can follow a route and its not hard to foresee them being able to further enhance their “autopilot” features in the coming year(s). I like them I and think they have the potential to be a helpful tool for society in a number of uses, but like any piece of technology the saying goes “One man’s tool is another man’s weapon.” proper regulation is all these multirotors or drones need

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  9. Like other pieces of tech I can see these being used for the wrong reasons. Imagine the skys full of these things. Like the article says, what if one of these were to fall from the sky and hit someone and injures or even worse, kills them. It’d b so easy for the piolt to grt away with it.

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    1. Cars are the real concern here. It’s not even an occasional problem: the news routinely reports on accidents every single day as part of a “traffic report”. And the potential danger of being in a car accident is much higher than the remote possibility of a multi-rotor helicopter accident.

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  10. It’s easy to pick these things off in the air, a bow and arrow, a sling shot, Thor’s hammer, etc,

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