OAKLAND, Calif. – Neighborhood message boards are buzzing with complaints that drones, more popular than ever for work and play, just won't back off.
Users here of the local social network Nextdoor for months have been stewing about these small, flying vehicles, which often carry cameras, accusing them of snooping or maybe casing the joint. They wonder if it's legal to fight back, say by lassoing the pesky vehicle flying outside their window – or even shooting it down with a potato gun. (In most cases, it's not.)
Oakland resident Katy O’Neill goes as far as blaming it for shattering her dining room window. "I went outside to look for a dead bird or a ball or something. I didn't see anything like that, but what I did see was a drone hovering high above my house,” she said over direct message.
While a drone that hit a window would likely be too hobbled to keep flying, suspicions such as O'Neill's about these devices are rising as they become more ubiquitous.
Drone sales are skyrocketing for both hobby and commercial use, with analysts at BI Intelligence expecting sales to surpass $12 billion in 2021.
“It’s no wonder run-ins between (drone users) and the general public are on the rise,” says Jeremy Gillula, tech policy director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog group that advocates for privacy. “Anytime you introduce new technology to the masses, you have growing pains. A lot of people have a lot of questions and a lot of fear about it.”
Recreational quadcopters, cinema-grade flying robot camera rigs and even palm-sized app-controlled kids’ toys – any kind of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – often get lumped into the catch-all term “drone.” The more high-tech models with built-in HD cameras and the ability to stream video can cost thousands of dollars, but that hasn’t stopped them from becoming a favorite of hobbyists and professionals alike.
If you live in a hot housing market, the demand for drone real estate shots is through the roof now, professional photographer Sam Sargent says. Sargent uses a DJI drone to capture aerial footage of everything from homes for sale to sweeping scenics and architectural details on skyscrapers.
“I can see why people are nervous about it. They don’t know what they’re seeing, they just know there’s a buzz above their home,” he said.
As a courtesy, Sargent says he always knocks on nearby neighbors' doors to let them know whenever he’s about to use a drone to photograph a house.
But that practice isn't universal, and some operators may not realize they face limits on what they can do.
First, no matter whether you’re flying for fun or commercially, the Federal Aviation Administration wants you to register any drone that weighs between 0.55 pound (the equivalent of two sticks of butter) and 55 pounds. To fly for commercial use, such as photographer, you have to get a remote pilot certificate.
But even then there are restrictions. The FAA’s official rules don’t allow flying drones at night, as well as flying over other people, unless you get a special waiver. As for the fear of electronic eyes peering into your home, there are so-called “Peeping Tom laws” on the books in many states that protect a reasonable expectation of privacy, but vary in their wording and specifics.
To plug any legal loopholes people might run into, some cities are gradually adopting drone-specific ordinances. The Colorado town of Greenwood Village recently passed a regulation to prevent the use of drones for spying. Other towns, such as Orchard Park, New York, have been forced to rewrite their own drone laws that were too heavy-handed – such as a ban on drones near any large outdoor gathering – so as to not overstep the FAA.
And, if you’re caught flying a drone in a “careless and reckless manner,” the FAA could fine you up to $32,666 for civil penalties and up to $250,000 for criminal wrongs. You could also go to jail.
Hot demand from real estate
Residents bothered when drone operators don't cleave to these rules may be tempted to take matters into their own hands – say by hosing one down or interfering with the drone’s controls using a radio signal jammer. They also should not do that.
Authorities discourage shooting down or jamming a drone’s signal because the drone could then crash and hurt somebody or damage property. Often, cities restrict where you can discharge firearms.
In the past, people who have taken down drones near their homes ended up on the defensive end of lawsuits. In 2014, authorities arrested a New Jersey man who shot down his neighbor’s drone. Similarly, a California man who shot down a drone thinking it was “a CIA surveillance device” ended up having to shell out nearly $1,000 for the damages.
“Never, ever try to shoot at a drone,” Gillula warns. He also says nine times out of 10 the pilot of that drone outside your home is the kid next door trying to figure out his latest gadget, or a real-estate photographer getting aerial shots for brochures. “Usually, there’s nothing nefarious going on.”
Oakland resident Julian Blauth faced this quandary when a drone kept reappearing near his house in the Grand Lake neighborhood.
“One time I caught a drone flying right over my deck in front of my bedroom windows. Another time in front of my bathroom. That’s when I started getting irritated,” he said.
He thinks he knows what house it’s coming from, but when he has knocked on the door, no one answers.
Most of the time, following the drone back to the pilot and having a civilized talk about it usually does the trick. But if you can’t find them? “I would get a picture of the drone, especially right in front of your house,” Gillula explains. “Call the police. They have Peeping Tom laws they can enforce, and they can have someone patrol the area.”
A website called the Federal Drone Report promises to forward any and all reports of illegal drone activities – or even lost-and-found drones – to local authorities as well as the FAA.
For drone pilots who want to ensure they’re flying safely within the law, the FAA has an app called B4UFLY. It shows whether the location you’re flying your drone has any FAA-specific restrictions, such as flying within 5 miles of an airport.
One of the major drone makers is also working on a technical solution. Drone manufacturer DJI recently launched the AeroScope system, which lets police, airports, and other authorities identify airborne drones and even locate the pilots.
“Every DJI drone transmits a steady stream of information to the controller,” DJI spokesman Adam Lisberg said. “Embedded in that system is all kinds of information – altitude, speed, location, the serial number of the drone, type of drone it is – and it can be configured to automatically broadcast an FAA registration number, should that become law someday as well.”
Lisberg wouldn’t confirm how much the AeroScope sells for, only that “around $5,000” is fairly accurate. That price tag makes it more of an industry tool versus something that could help the average consumer such as Julian Blauth right away. Still, it’s a nod to what kind of technology exists now and what might help manage these issues in the future.
Until then, both people flying drones and people bugged by them have to try to just get along.
"We can’t wind back the clock on technology," Gillula says. "At the same time – people who are operating drones shouldn’t be jerks and do things that could be construed as an invasion of privacy."
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Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech contributor and host of USA TODAY's digital video show TECH NOW. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferJolly.