Drones overhead a little creepy
A few weeks ago, I noticed a strange flying object whirring above me while walking in Albany’s Lincoln Park.
It was unlike anything I had ever seen before, and yet I knew exactly what it was: a small drone.
At the time, it didn’t occur to me to approach the man and woman who were standing on the hill operating the device and ask them questions, but I wish I had. I’m curious: Why did they acquire the drone? What were they using it for? They looked like regular people, playing with a cool new toy, but I didn’t inquire, and so I can’t be sure.
I forgot all about the Lincoln Park incident until last week, when I attended the weekly Alive at Five concert in Albany and saw another small drone flying overhead. It was crowded, and the futuristic-looking object did not go unnoticed.
“It’s a drone!” yelled a man sitting in front of me, pointing upward.
The reaction from my friends was decidedly negative.
“I don’t want a drone taking video of me,” my friend Bruce commented.
This drone sighting came at a time when small, civilian- and hobbyist-operated drones are becoming more prevalent.
A recent Associated Press article, titled “New York police see risks with drones’ popularity,” described some of the problems drones are causing in New York City. “One private drone crash-landed in midtown Manhattan,” the piece stated. “Another caused alarm by hovering over Times Square amid tight security during Super Bowl week. More recently, authorities say, another had a close brush with a police helicopter near the George Washington Bridge.”
After Alive at Five, I kicked myself for not tracking down the drone operator, and resolved that the next time I saw a drone, I would make an effort to learn more about who was flying it and why.
That might explain why I was so excited to learn that a small flying object observed at the Schenectady County SummerNight street festival last Friday was a drone. Specifically, a 2-foot-by-2-foot mini-helicopter — or quadcopter — with a video camera attached to it. The device is the property of Open Stage Media, the Proctors-based organization that runs Schenectady’s public access, education and government TV station.
I spoke with Open Stage Media station manager Zeb Schmidt to learn more about the quadcopter, which was purchased about a month ago for less than $1,000.
He said the device will be used for taking aerial footage that can be used in on-air promos that showcase the city of Schenectady. At the SummerNight festival, the copter “hovered up near City Hall to get a different viewpoint that people wouldn’t usually get to see,” he said. “It provides a different way of looking at the city. It opens up a new category of cinematography. … It’s another type of camera. It’s fun and easy to use.”
The Federal Aviation Administration bars flying “unmanned aircraft systems” for payment or commercial purposes, although companies such as Amazon have expressed a desire to use drones for basic tasks, such as delivering packages. The agency does permit flying drones for hobby or recreational use, as long as operators follow certain safety guidelines. Schmidt said he reviewed the agency’s “dos and don’ts” of flying model aircraft before acquiring the quadcopter, and has followed the rules. Those rules include avoiding manned aircraft, keeping the drone within sight and not operating an aircraft that weighs more than 55 pounds.
One of the things that concerns me about drones is the potential for invading privacy.
I contacted Melanie Trimble, who heads the Capital Region chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, to see whether civilian-operated drones had raised any concerns among civil libertarians. She reminded me that people should have no expectation of privacy when out in public and that private citizens can take pictures and record video in public spaces.
That is certainly true.
Newspapers and TV stations often take photographs and shoot video of crowds and public spaces, and they don’t need to obtain permission from every person present. So I understand why Open Stage Media might be enthused about the quadcopter and its ability to shoot footage from different angles, perspectives and heights.
That said, I do find drones a little creepy.
Like my friend Bruce, I’m not exactly comfortable being photographed or videotaped at public events by weird little flying machines. And yet I don’t really have any complaints about how Open Stage Media is using the copter. Schmidt seemed responsible and well-versed in the guidelines for model aircraft, and Open Stage Media’s use of the quadcopter struck me as fairly benign.
However, on Wednesday the FAA announced that it was investigating OSM’s quadcopter “to determine if any federal regulations or airspace restrictions were violated.” Schmidt told The Gazette’s Mark McGuire that OSM didn’t violate anything because it is a nonprofit organization and not subject to the ban on using unmanned aircraft for commercial use.
That sounded right to me, but the more I read, the more I questioned my initial take on the matter.
In a document released in June, the FAA defined hobby as a “pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation” and recreation as “refreshment of strength and spirits after work; a means of refreshment or diversion.” Whatever one might think of OSM’s quadcopter, it seems clear that the organization’s use of the device is work-related and has a purpose beyond relaxation, refreshment and diversion.
Schmidt doesn’t refer to the quadcopter as a drone. He said that the term suggests government, possibly military use, and that the quadcopter is “more like a toy helicopter.”
That might be true.
But whether the FAA sees it the same way remains to be seen.