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A US drone flies over Edwards Air Force Base. (photo: Keystone/Zuma/Rex Features)
A US drone flies over Edwards Air Force Base. (photo: Keystone/Zuma/Rex Features)

Tens of Thousands of Drones Zipping Through U.S. Skies

By Chris Francescani, Reuters

03 March 13


hey hover over Hollywood film sets and professional sports events. They track wildfires in Colorado, survey Kansas farm crops and vineyards in California. They inspect miles of industrial pipeline and monitor wildlife, river temperatures and volcanic activity.

They also locate marijuana fields, reconstruct crime scenes and spot illegal immigrants breaching U.S. borders.

Tens of thousands of domestic drones are zipping through U.S. skies, often flouting tight federal restrictions on drone use that require even the police and the military to get special permits.

Armed with streaming video, swivel cameras and infrared sensors, a new breed of high-tech domestic drones is beginning to change the way Americans see the world - and each other.

Powered by the latest microtechnology and driven by billions in defense industry and commercial research dollars, domestic drones are poised for widespread expansion into U.S. airspace once regulation catches up with reality.

That is scheduled to begin in late 2015, when the U.S. government starts issuing commercial drone permits.

Veteran aerial photographer Mark Bateson, a consultant to the film and television industry and some police departments, said one reality show producer asked him last year whether his custom-made drone could hover over a desert and use its thermal imaging sensors to spot ghosts for a ghost-hunter reality series.

Bateson rejected that request. "But I heard they eventually found someone to do it," he said.

"Commercially, the culture already exists," said Ben Miller, a Mesa County, Colorado, sheriff's deputy who has been flying drones with special authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration since 2009.

"Turn on your TV and pay close attention to major sports events. You'll see that in many cases they are getting aerial shots using a UAS (unmanned aerial system). I would venture to say that if you've seen an action movie in the last five years, chances are that a UAS was used."


Federal legislation enacted last year requires the FAA to prepare a plan to open U.S. skies in 2015 to widespread use of unmanned aircraft by public agencies and private industry.

Potential markets include agriculture, shipping, oil exploration, commercial fishing, major league sports, film and television production, environmental monitoring, meteorological studies, law enforcement and the news media.

The aviation and aerospace industry research firm Teal Group estimated last year that global spending on unmanned aircraft will double over the next 10 years, to nearly $90 billion, with the U.S. accounting for 62 percent of research and development spending and 55 percent of procurement spending.

For decades, model airplane hobbyists have been allowed to fly small, remote-controlled aircraft up to 400 feet and at least a quarter mile from any airport. While public agencies can get permission to use unarmed drones, all commercial use remains banned.

"As a hobbyist - I can do whatever I want right now, within remote-control guidelines," said Bateson, the aerial photographer. "But as soon as you turn it into a business ... the FAA says you are violating the national airspace."

Bateson said that whether his drone shoots video for fun or for profit, "there is no greater danger to the national airspace."

Last year the National Football League petitioned the FAA to speed the licensing of commercial drones, joining Hollywood's Motion Picture Association of America, which has been lobbying the agency for several years, an MPAA spokesman told the drone news website UAS Vision.

The FAA has issued 1,428 drone permits to universities, law enforcement and other public agencies since 2007, when the agency formally banned commercial drone use. Of those, 327 permits remain active, said FAA spokesman Les Dorr.


Bateson flies a customized 48-inch-wide Styrofoam fixed-wing remote-controlled aircraft that cost about $20,000 - compared with up to $1 million for a helicopter. He said his aircraft has logged 1,800 miles and has recorded 60 hours of high-resolution video. He said he has never run into trouble with the FAA.

Patrick Egan, an unmanned aircraft consultant to the U.S. military and editor of sUAS News, a drone news website, said the FAA's commercial ban on drones is unenforceable.

"How do you possibly enforce these regulations?" he said.

Earlier this year, Connecticut marketing firm ImageMark Strategy and Design launched a drone-powered aerial photo and video service to offer to its existing clients, which include universities, golf resorts and real estate firms.

Partner Scott Benton said his company invested about $20,000 in remote-controlled multi-rotor copters equipped to carry camcorders or SLR digital cameras with swivel tilts. Benton said he wasn't even aware of FAA restrictions on commercial drone use until after he purchased all the equipment.

He said his company plans to charge clients for editing and post-production work, not the drone flights.

Many commercial drone operators offer similar arguments. Some say they operate only on private land. Others say they are selling data, not drone flight time.

Still others say they will simply take their chances.

"Honestly?" said one commercial operator, who requested anonymity to protect his business. "My hope is that I'm far afield enough and small enough potatoes to the FAA that I can fly under the radar on this one."


In 2011, News Corp's tablet news site, the Daily, sent a Microdrone MD4-1000 into the skies over Alabama, Missouri and North Dakota to capture dramatic aerial footage of flood damage. A subsequent FAA investigation resulted in a warning, an FAA spokesman told Reuters. A News Corp spokesman declined to comment.

Last fall, a collective shudder rose up from Hollywood when false reports surfaced that the aggressive tabloid news website TMZ was seeking permission to fly its own drone.

The report was false, but it raised concerns.

"I'm less worried about the police getting a fleet of drones than I am about the news media," said Egan.

"Imagine what it will be like when the paparazzi can send a fleet of drones into the Hollywood hills."

The boom in drone use, both private and public, is also raising privacy concerns.

Civil liberties groups are urging federal and state legislators to place immediate restrictions on drone use by U.S. law enforcement agencies, which have historically been quick to capitalize on emerging technology like cell phone tracking.

At least 15 states have drafted legislation that would restrict drone use. In Seattle last month, a public outcry prompted the mayor to order the police chief to return the department's two new drones to their manufacturer.


An even bigger concern for many is security. The activities of some drone operators are fueling fears about the potential for terrorism or that drones could interfere with manned air traffic and cause an accident.

A group of skilled drone operators using "first person view," or FPV, technology, has sent Ritewing Zephyr drones that capture high-quality video of visual thrill rides around some of the world's most famous landmarks.

The group, known as Team Blacksheep, has made a series of videos using drones circling the torch on New York City's Statue of Liberty and London's Big Ben clock tower. Team Blacksheep's FPV drones have darted through the arches of the Golden Gate Bridge and buzzed the peak of the Matterhorn.

The videos, captured at dizzying angles, are wildly popular online, but hobbyists and other drone enthusiasts worry that such videos give the industry a bad name.

"Those are the people the FAA should be going after," Bateson said.

A Team Blacksheep founder did not respond to requests for comment on security concerns.

Would-be attackers have already tried to exploit drones. Last fall, a Massachusetts man was sentenced to 17 years in prison for plotting to attack Washington, D.C., with three remote-controlled airplanes carrying C-4 explosives.

Drones may also be vulnerable to hacking.

Last summer, Department of Homeland Security officials challenged Texas aerospace engineering professor Todd Humphreys and his class to try to "spoof" a DHS drone's GPS system.

GPS "spoofing" is a technique by which a vehicle's GPS receiver can be tricked and taken over by a slightly more powerful signal that mimics the attributes of the original signal - essentially an airborne hack.

Humphreys and his students succeeded in hacking the drone and took control of its flight path.

If a college class "can spoof the GPS, what can other nation states or terrorist groups do?" Representative Paul Broun (R-Ga.) asked at a recent congressional hearing on domestic drones.


Some U.S. drone designers worry about the consequences of what they see as a slow U.S. response to a rapidly evolving technology.

"The Chinese are going to kill us," said Texas pilot Gene Robinson, who spent $20,000 designing an innovative fixed-wing drone for search-and-rescue missions. "They have copied every single design, including mine, that they can get their hands on."

Robinson said he installed Web-tracking software on his drone design Web page and then watched last spring as a Chinese design company "spent a month on my Web page ... reverse-engineered my design" and began selling mass-produced copies in December - for $169.

Side-by-side pictures of Robinson's model and the Chinese model that he showed a reporter look virtually identical.

Robinson went online and ordered one of Chinese models - to see if he could attach his equipment to the cheaper version.

"It was a dog, a pig," he said. "It didn't fly worth a damn." your social media marketing partner


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For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+5 # DaveM 2013-03-03 23:08
Could this be the source of a certain number of UFO reports?
+1 # noitall 2013-03-04 18:02
Quoting DaveM:
Could this be the source of a certain number of UFO reports?

No, still swamp gas.
+8 # RMDC 2013-03-04 05:41
But don't worry. They are only making Americans safe and helping to relieve some of the paralyzing fear of terrorists living among them. When there are 10 million drones in the air, maybe Americans will be safe.
0 # noitall 2013-03-04 17:51
Quoting RMDC:
But don't worry. They are only making Americans safe and helping to relieve some of the paralyzing fear of terrorists living among them. When there are 10 million drones in the air, maybe Americans will be safe.

RMDC, I know you're writing tongue-in-cheek , very right on.
One thing we should all consider,
always beware of unintended consequences. We might find our wedding parties being blown up by those whose wedding parties we blew up. No "good deed" goes unpunished in the fear war. Persistence pays off and there is no one more persistent than those who feel that they have been done wrong whether intentional or not. "oopsy, I seem to have accidentally blown up your wedding party" they looked like 'Osama' to know, beard, dark skin, Middle Eastern-looking ..." All we need is to turn the private sector loose. It would be a short time before these so-called underground cells have another weapon that they can use domestically and as recklessly and cowardly as our govt. is using it abroad.
+4 # Rick Levy 2013-03-04 06:15
Does this mean that progressives could also use drones to monitor rethuglicans?
0 # noitall 2013-03-04 17:38
Quoting Rick Levy:
Does this mean that progressives could also use drones to monitor rethuglicans?

Sure, but like everything, its a spend game; whoever spends the most, wins. Any rich do-gooders out there?
+4 # Glen 2013-03-04 07:15
Good point, DaveM. And chaos will rule the skies and create even more babble on the ground.

Rural people all through the U.S. will resent the intrusion and I guarantee they will start shooting these drones. People can be pushed into a corner but will eventually come out fighting, even if they lose. That is not the same thing as a revolution. It is picking off the enemy bit by bit, as in guerrilla warfare.
+4 # hammermann 2013-03-04 08:35
Every bit of privacy anywhere, except in off-line phoneless windowless underground rooms... will soon disappear. It's a brave new world.

Too bad- I love RC planes- watched them flying real dogfights (one crashed into other) on north Maui cliffs
0 # Firefox11 2013-03-04 19:46
Make you want to turn back the clock fifty years or so. This brave new world is every bit as horrible as was predicted in sci-fi.
+2 # Anarchist 23 2013-03-04 12:21
Oh another Hollywood movie! This is like 'the Terminator' and that sky-net thing-and the machines become linked and self programing and it's the end of humanity... or order deteriorates into violent chaos-one sure fire result of what is being pushed on us in the name of the sacred myth of 9/11. The pan-opticon where the whole world is a prison where each action is remotely viewed...not too fond of that Hollywood movie either...why does this species always chose to believe the nightmare reality?
+2 # Glen 2013-03-04 13:57
Good points, Anarchist 23. We are closer to Terminator life than many people know. The U.S. military also uses robots.
+1 # Firefox11 2013-03-04 19:47
translating this....are you saying that you see the possible connection of remote controlled airliners on 9/11...
0 # Glen 2013-03-05 07:16
Yes, Firefox11, but also the sand dogs in the desert. What do people assume the Mars Rover is. Any of these things can be weaponized. And - if you study those planes hitting the trade center you will see they are not of the normal configuration of commercial planes.
+6 # hardtraveling 2013-03-04 13:12
Has it occurred to anyone else on this thread that what happened on 9/11 may have involved remote controlled aircraft?
The official conspiracy theory promulgated by the government in the 9/11 Commission Report is that commercial airliners were flown by Islamic hijackers armed with box cutters. There are so many holes in this story that you could open a Swiss cheese factory with it. Many of these omissions and distortions were exposed by authors such as the theologian David Ray Griffin and websites such as Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth. Slow-motion viewing of the planes hitting the World Trade Towers show structures under the fuselage typical of military, not civilian, planes. The hole in the Pentagon was too small for a commercial airliner to have traversed it. The military has been developing drone technolgy for many years. The 9/11 false-flag operation may have been an early, and highly secret, application of it.
+1 # noitall 2013-03-04 17:59
Just the nature of these stealthy sneaks hovering around in your personal air space gives them an aura of being a (at least) potential enemy of one's own personal health. Following the neo-approach that this country has to "potential" threats, wouldn't we citizens be obligated to knock them out of the sky? They might be being operated by one of these seeder, breeder cells, whatever, that we hear about on Fear News all the time. I'd say treat them like you'd treat someone you discovered peeking into your daughter's bedroom window. They have the same capability.
0 # JSRaleigh 2013-03-06 14:58
Direct quote from

No doubt that these will eventually be used for military applications. That said, they might actually level the battle field quite a bit. Citizens fighting against better-funded oppressive regimes could certainly pester their enemy with this technology. (Imagine a swarm of these things descending on your location with five pounds of explosives strapped to each one of them!!) ...More than 10,000 radio / GPS controlled hexacopters could be purchased for the price of just one "conventional" attack helicopter.

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