By Kevin Begos
PITTSBURGH, Penn., (AP) – A trade group for drone aircraft manufacturers and operators has released the industry’s first code of conduct in response to growing privacy concerns.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International said that the recommendations for “safe, non-intrusive operation” are meant to guide operators and reassure a public leery of the possibility of spy drones flying undetected over their homes.
“We understand as an industry that we’ve got a public relations problem,” said Paul McDuffee, a director of the association who helped draft the recommendations.
Drones, small airplanes or helicopters operated remotely by pilots from the ground, can be equipped with sophisticated cameras and even weapons. They have been used to spy on and hunt down al-Qaida terrorists in Pakistan, but the rapidly declining size and cost of them has prompted fears that thousands could be operating in the U.S. within a decade, with little effective oversight. Some of the drones weigh just a few pounds and can fit in a person’s hands.
Citizens, civil liberties groups and politicians have voiced worries that the small aircraft raise the specter of a “surveillance society.” Currently there are only about 300 authorized federal permits to operate such aircraft, along with an unknown number of unlicensed amateurs, who are supposed to keep their aircraft within sight.
The new recommendations by the association, a non-profit based in Arlington, Va., that has members in more than 60 countries, pledge to “respect the privacy of individuals” and the concerns of the public and to follow all federal, state and local laws. They also pledge to ensure that remote drone pilots are properly trained and to respect “other users of the airspace.”
The language on privacy is good, but it’s not enough, American Civil Liberties Union lobbyist Chris Calabrese said.
“I think it’s really important that they’re paying attention to privacy. That’s to their credit,” Calabrese said. “But I can’t imagine they expect this to quell privacy concerns.”
Calabrese added that ultimately even well-meaning guidelines from a private group aren’t legally binding on public and private organizations around the country.
“I think Congress needs to step in. This is new technology. It’s potentially incredibly invasive,” he said. “People are profoundly discomforted by the idea of drones monitoring them.”
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