On the Clock with Calvin Walker

Bagley College of Engineering experts answer your questions about engineering, technology and life.

The increased presence of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in domestic situations has some people singing, "I always feel like somebody's watching me." But are these tools really destined to be Big Brother's eye in the sky? Aerospace engineering's Calvin Walker answers questions about the privacy issues that arise with UAS usage.

Walker is a senior flight test engineer at Mississippi State's Raspet Flight Research Laboratory. He has been a faculty adviser for the university's student UAS design team since it was established in 2003.

Q: What are the main concerns about increased UAS usage?

A: The biggest concern we keep hearing about is the idea that law enforcement or your neighbors might somehow be monitoring your activity using these systems. But people don't have problems with helicopters or airplanes flying overhead, or even satellites that take pictures, and to me it's basically the same thing. I think UAS just seems more personal to people because they are small, relatively inexpensive and can fly lower than normal aircraft. Plus, with many commercially available systems you don't need special training to use them.

Q: So if these systems are so inexpensive and easy to use, what is to keep law enforcement agencies from using them to patrol?

A: Any government entity using UAS must have a certificate of authorization (COA) from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly. These COAs, and the special airworthiness certificates that must be obtained by commercial entities, are primarily to protect the airspace and prevent UAS from interfering with regular air traffic, but in doing so they restrict how UAS can be used.

There is no such thing as a blanket COA. They are issued for specific UAS to do specific jobs at specific times. So even if a law enforcement agency, like your county sheriff's office, has UAS technology, it can't be used for everyday patrol. They have to put in a request for a specific purpose and more than likely, if it involves surveillance of private property, it would need to be accompanied by a court order like a traditional search warrant.

Q: But what about recreational users, is your privacy at risk if your neighbors purchase and use camera-equipped UAS?

A: UAS use is considered recreational as long as you are not profiting from it. So that would cover hobbyists, for example if your neighbors have UAS that they enjoy flying around the neighborhood. COAs don't cover recreational use, but hobbyists are expected to follow guidelines that state that they should keep their UAS in sight during operation.

In reality, you're at no more risk of having your privacy violated by UAS use than if your neighbor peeked through a hole in your fence or snapped pictures using a digital camera with a telephoto lens. And really, unless you are outside in an area with very little tree cover, it's going to be difficult for recreational UAS to see you. Plus, it takes a lot of skill to fly a UAS below tree cover because you have to dodge trees, power lines and other obstacles at lower altitudes.

Basically, nosy people are going to be nosy, but you would have the same legal protection from UAS snooping that you would from traditional forms of invasion of privacy.

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