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Eyes in the sky: Drones being considered for civilian surveillance

Surveillance cameras are everywhere these days, from banks to government buildings, police cars and even on the lapels of police officers themselves.

Improving technology could soon put more cameras in the sky, attached to drones and local companies are key players in the development of this fast-growing market.

The military has used unmanned aerial vehicles for years to target and attack the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan. A subsidiary of the Boeing company, Insitu, has developed multiple unmanned systems for the battlefield.

Now, the technology is becoming more affordable and there's growing interest in drones for civilian use.

"We're finally bringing science fiction to reality" said Tom Nugent, the President of Kent start-up LaserMotive. He might be talking about drones but he's actually referring to the company's power beaming technology that won a NASA prize.

"It's, in a sense, a wireless extension cord. We take a laser and shine it through the air to a remote specialized solar cell and that solar cell converts that light into electricity, just like solar cells on your house," explained Nugent.

LaserMotive is using its technology to develop drones that never need to land to refuel. Possible civilian uses include surveying wildfires and farmland.

"If a farmer needs an image of his farm field to see what conditions are, for example, if you could have a small hand-launched aircraft with a nice, small camera, then you could fly it wherever you want, whenever you want and not have to wait on someone else, and you could probably do it cheaper," said Nugent.

He said his drones with their power beaming technology are also being marketed to police agencies.

"We've spoken to some of the hostage rescue teams in some of the large cities and they are very interested in having this capability to simply survey the outside of a building before they approach it and put their personnel in danger," Nugent explained.

But the development of drones, with cameras, for civilian use is a concern for privacy advocates.

"It definitely provides a tool for law enforcement that you can see the utility in, in having a cheap flying portable surveillance machine, unfortunately the question is: How does it respect privacy? So we've got all kinds of technologies where law enforcement is now storing large amounts of data and peering into all part of our private lives," said Brian Alseth, with the American Civil Liberties Union in Seattle.

He says the proliferation of security cameras in public can lead to surveillance fatigue, where people give up being concerned.

"You start to see one or two pop up and then all of a sudden they're everywhere and before anyone has a chance to think about it we're being caught on camera hundreds of times per day. Hopefully with drones, since it's something that is regulated to begin with, we can get out in front of it," suggested Alseth.

The Federal Aviation Administration has issued hundreds of permits for testing drones but so far has not issued permits for their widespread use in U.S. airspace.

People have an expectation of privacy on their property, said Alseth and he thinks airborne surveillance will eventually lead to a court ruling.

"We need to decide as Americans what it means to be in a free and open society and how much unfettered surveillance we want to allow for," said Alseth.

Teal Group, an aerospace industry organization, predicts the market for unmanned aerial vehicles will more than double to $11.5 billion in the next ten years.

About the Author

Tim Haeck is a news reporter with KIRO Radio. While Tim is one of our go-to, no-nonsense reporters, he also has a sensationally dry sense of humor and it will surprise some to learn he is a weekend warrior.

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