Defense department videos depict what many people probably envision when they think of drones, grainy images from unmanned aircraft taking on enemy stronghold in a war zone, but drones have come a long way.
Andreas Oesterer and Mark Harrison are among the estimated 26,000 drone enthusiasts around the world flying their own robotic aircrafts. "It was not too difficult to get started," Harrison says. Under U.S. law, hobby drones can fly below 400 feet and cannot fly out of sight of the controller. You don't need a permit to fly one and no commercial uses have been approved.
The three to six foot-long machines are relatively affordable because of inexpensive chips, sensors, and cameras that have flooded the market in recent years. "Even a couple of years ago, this would be like a $10,000, $20,000 project and now have it be like $500, $600, as cheap as a smart phone, as cheap as a laptop computer, makes it pretty feasible," Harrison says.
"If you have an iPhone or an Android, you have all the sensors and technology necessary to fly an airplane," Chris Anderson says. Anderson is editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. He started a popular drone website and founded a company that sells drone parts. He says business is growing 50 percent a year. "Right now, the vast majority of people are doing it for fun, education, learning, you know, just the sheer thrill of having a flying robot," he says.
However, it's aerial photography that has many drone pilots most interested. Whether it is being able to wear special glasses to see from the planes point-of-view or just taking in the view of the bay. The Department of Homeland Security operates a small fleet of drones along the Canadian and Mexican borders. "So, with the aircraft, you can put that aircraft up at 400 or 500 feet, be able to scan the area for other individuals and again, contain it more visibly from the air than you could from the ground," explains Vanguard Industries CEO Mike Buscher.
That's raising big concerns about privacy and how the government is using drones to watch all of us. People, when they step outside their door, could end up being tracked 24-7 by these cameras," Trevor Timm with Electronic Frontier Foundation says. He thinks it's getting too easy for government agencies to spy on us with drones. "The FAA was basically mandated to issue drone licenses to public agencies as long as they could prove they could fly them safely," he says.
The foundation sued, demanding to know who has applied for a drone license. They won, so the federal government turned over a list of 60 government agencies who want to use them. On the list were a few dozen law enforcement agencies across the country. "The FAA actually estimates that by 2020 there may be as many as 30,000 drones flying in U.S. skies," Timm says.
Although, drone enthusiasts say they are just doing it for fun. "Hobbyist drones, you can get them up 20, 30 minutes at a time. It's really not practical for long-term surveillance," Harrison says.