Look. Up in the sky. It's a bird. It's a plane. It's Superman. No … it's a drone?
Drone is not a word many had ever heard until it popped up on the evening news in recent years wiping out some enemy combatant. But they are out there and they are for real, even right here in Idaho and throughout the United States.
A drone is an unmanned aircraft system that has its own lobbying group, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which earlier this month released a code of conduct. The code emphasizes the principals of "safety, professionalism and respect," but there are skeptics and doubters who wonder where it all may lead when they learn that the Air Force is training its drone pilots by having them track civilian vehicles within the borders of the United States, according to reports in the New York Times, Fox News and a number of other media outlets.
Here in Idaho, Canyon County recently spent more than $33,000 obtained from a Homeland Security grant to purchase and train employees how to operate a Dragonflyer X6 drone helicopter equipped with a camera that can stream live high-definition video to a remote operator.
Concerns about the role of drones are unfounded, says Lt. Todd Herrera with the Canyon County Sheriff's Office. "If you're [the police] invading somebody's privacy or personal space in a place you're not supposed to be, then a warrant would be proper." He did point out, however, that "the police are allowed to be able to view things from the street … from public places."
He added citizens can feel some measure of security from an unwarranted drone intrusion through the court system. "If it's [the drone] involved in privacy issues, then—like any police type of search—it would be subject to the courts and getting the proper search warrant or proper documentation from the courts to be able to use it in a police function."
Drones are already in use in Idaho in other locales.
• Phil Groves, a senior fishery biologist with Idaho Power Company, uses multiple drone helicopters to study salmon in Idaho waterways.
• Last July, Jennifer Forbey, an associate professor of biology at Boise State University, along with partners at the U.S. Geological Survey, used decommissioned military drones to study the habitats of pygmy rabbits in southern Idaho.
• The Idaho National Laboratory (INL) also studies and works with drones and is currently working on a program to allow them to engage in completely autonomous flights.
Tom Munds, a resident and former legislative candidate in Canyon County, was less than thrilled with the county's purchase. "This is an assault on our freedom, not a means to make us secure," he said.
Nationally, the Federal Aviation Administration projects that there could be as many as 30,000 drones operating in the U.S. by the end of the decade. In addition to privacy concerns, safety issues about drones have been raised as well. According to data provided during testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives, drones operated by Customs and Border Protection between 2006 and 2010 had an accident rate more than seven times the general aviation accident rate and 353 times the commercial aviation accident rate.
Nikki Watts, a spokesman for Congressman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who is a member of the Unmanned Systems Caucus that is commonly known as "the drone caucus," responded to an IdahoReporter.com email requesting comment saying, "Congressman Simpson is a member of the Unmanned Systems Caucus, in part, because of the research work being done at Idaho National Laboratory using the systems and because of the potential benefits they have for private industry, including farmers and ranchers."
She added that Simpson "supports the role unmanned systems have played in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere."
The congressman is not unaware, according to Watts, that there are civil liberties concerns with use of the drones. "Congressman Simpson shares the very real concerns of many in our nation with the potential for their use in monitoring activities that violate the civil liberties of American citizens. I think it is fair to say that he believes limits need to be placed on their use by law enforcement and other government agencies that are protective of the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution."
The drones question may even find its way into the 2013 session of the Idaho Legislature. Sen. Mitch Toryanski, R-Boise, is open to the idea of the state stepping in to safeguard individual liberty. He said, "I am deeply concerned about the potential impingement upon our right to be secure in our houses and our right to be free from unreasonable searches. I am sure that the use of drone technology is something our congressional delegation will want to examine and something that the state Legislature will want to examine as well. New technologies often create the potential for abuse, and we need to be continually vigilant to preserve our freedoms."