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2 Investigators: Domestic Drones Raise Safety, Privacy Concerns

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Pulitzer-prize winning reporter Pam Zekman serves on CBS 2 Chicago’s...
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(CBS) — Imagine a world where the sky is filled with buzzing, miniature planes and helicopters. The police can use them for surveillance, Amazon.com says they will use them for deliveries and your neighbor maybe making one in his garage.

But, are these “drones” safe and what about personal privacy? 2 Investigator Pam Zekman sorts out the fact from fiction about drones.

The birds-eye views can be spectacular. The images are shot from video cameras attached to what some call drones and hobbyist call unmanned aircraft systems.

“A lot of people just want to get the experience of flying, they want to feel like they are flying , so were putting on go pro cameras, ” said Jim Schmidt owner of Strictly R/C hobbies in Norridge.

Drones can cost as little as $50 and run all the way up to thousands of dollars depending on size and camera quality.

But, as the size and cost of drones comes down, more and more people will be able to buy one and that raises concerns about privacy and safety.

Right now drones can’t be used for commercial purposes, like deliveries, video recording properties for real estate agents or even news coverage. And privately owned drones operate under a set of 1981 FAA rules for remote control aircraft. Those rules state that you have to keep the aircraft in view, fly it no higher than 400-feet and you’re not supposed to fly the vehicle over populated areas.

On YouTube, you can find countless videos taken from “drones” that might be violating the FAA rules, many seemingly shot high above populated areas.

Inexperienced operators, using unmanned aircraft systems over densely populated areas is a major concern for hobbyists like Jim Schmidt.

“These are toys but they can hurt someone, if they are used the wrong way.” Schmidt said.

YouTube has a video of a bride and groom posing for wedding photos when a drone flies directly into the groom. No one was hurt in that instance. And in Virginia a crowd watching a race gasps in shock as a drone crashes into the spectators. Again, a close call, but no one was hurt.

“A drone as you know can fly quite high in the air and follow someone with a very powerful camera…perhaps be able to peer into someone’s home or business,” commented A.C.L.U spokesperson Ed Yohnka.

A demonstration with a drone helicopter shows how a mounted camera can shoot images directly through an open window — an ability that will increase as drones become smaller and quieter.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Ed Yohnka says he is concerned about potential privacy violations by both private citizens and law enforcement.

“I think the possible scenarios for abuse are just too numerous to even contemplate,” Yohnka said.

“I think you’re just going to see our skies filled with them if we don’t set some standards very quickly,” added Chicago 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack.

Ald. Waguespack has proposed an ordinance limiting the use of drones in Chicago.

“We need to start this discussion right away because technology moves a lot faster than the city council of Chicago,” Waguespack said.

Drone supporters say they could be useful in searches and manhunts, but a new state law requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant before a drone is deployed. As for private use, the Federal Aviation Administration says it will have rules in effect by 2015. But the big question remains: how will they ever be able to enforce potential drone regulations?

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