Privacy Concerns Hover Alongside Expanding Drone Use - Philadelphia News, Weather and Sports from WTXF FOX 29

Privacy Concerns Hover Alongside Expanding Drone Use

Updated:
BEVERLY, N.J. -

You may not see them or hear them. But they may be watching your every move.

They're called drones or unmanned aerial vehicles. Technology once used exclusively by the military is now being used by everyday citizens.

FOX 29's Chris O'Connell explains how what some are calling a hobby others call an invasion of your privacy.

A van pulls in before sunrise to the chilly banks of the Delaware River. But animal-rights activists aren't here for fun. They're here to spy. And this is their weapon: an unmanned, radio-controlled aircraft – a drone.

"We're out here and filming what's going to be a pigeon shoot. They use live animals for live targets, and we video-document it," said Mike Koblisk of the group SHARK.

Every other Saturday, the Chicago-based "Showing Animals Respect and Kindness" travels to Beverly, N.J., to document what they call illegal live pigeon shoots across the river at the Philadelphia Gun Club in Bensalem. That's the club behind the large privacy tarp.

"We capture a lot of things. We capture cruelty to animals, we capture them abandon animals, and just a lot of wontless slaughter," Koblisk said.

This group videotapes the shoots from above. They use a ground station to monitor and record video from up to a mile away, hovering so high you can barely know it's up there.

At one point, using an octocopter – octo because it has eight propellers – you can see O'Connell on the video from about 300 feet in the air.

It's one example of a drone technology that is taking off into the mainstream. The University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering even has a whole program devoted to development of drones.

From small hobby models that cost a couple hundred bucks to larger drones that can run up to $100,000, technology that was once saved for the military is now in the hands of private citizens.

"The uses are almost unlimited," said Steve Hindi, also of SHARK. "What do you use your car for? Where do you go with your car? Anyplace I want to go. That's almost the same thing here."

PennDOT just bought a $20,000 drone to inspect roads for sinkholes in remote areas.

Farmers use them to inspect crops from above.

A fire department in Colorado uses a drone for thermal-imaging during fires.

Even a Manayunk dry-cleaner figured out a way to have dry-cleaning delivered by way of a drone.

But what about your privacy?

"These drones can have incredibly powerful cameras. They can pick out somebody's license plate from thousands of feet in the air. They can recognize your face. They can keep track of your movements," said Mary Catherine Roper, and attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Privacy advocates say there very few regulations about how drones are used. Can some drones, equipped with high-power lenses and infrared technology, see too much?

Right now many states, including Pennsylvania, are drafting legislation about how the drones can operate.

"All this hoopla, 'Oh, fear the drones' – when did Americans start to be fearful of anything and everything?" asked Hindi. "I mean, bring on the drones. I say bring 'em on."

But with more than a million of these hitting the air every year, and the sales of drones expected to reach $94 billion in the next decade, there may be no stopping the drones.

"We need to be paying attention to this technology. It's fantastic technology. It can do a whole lot for us. But it can also do a lot to us," the ACLU's Roper said.

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