Earlier this week, a small helicopter drone tumbled out of the sky over midtown Manhattan, crashing to the sidewalk near Grand Central Station.
On the way down it almost hit a businessman, who plucked out the video card from the wreckage and handed it over to a local television-news station. In the video, the drone (a Phantom Quadcopter) lifts off from what looks like an apartment terrace and buzzes its merry way toward some nearby skyscrapers, pausing for a few panoramic surveys of the Manhattan skyline. But the operator is clearly inexperienced, crashing the vehicle against the side of a building, and the flight lasts a mere three minutes before a final collision sends it to the street.
Drone enthusiasts and engineers blamed the Quadcopter’s poor performance on the pilot’s possible reliance on GPS mode; when flying in an area crowded with tall buildings (and they don’t get much taller or more crowded than in Manhattan) that block GPS signals, a vehicle can quickly think it’s off-target and attempt to correct, leading to crashes.
In theory, the FAA forbids the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles over crowded areas such as Manhattan, but that hasn’t stopped any number of hobbyists from launching drones. Just across the East River, in Brooklyn, Tumblr founder David Karp keeps ordering—and crashing—drones from a Chinese manufacturer. “I fly drones all over Brooklyn,” he told New York magazine. “These things are amazing. These things are not regulated. I keep destroying them.”
Hobbyists aside, the industry for commercial drones is picking up. Over the summer, the FAA approved a pair of small, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for flight; an energy company planned to launch one of those two drones, the Insitu Scan Eagle X200, from a commercial ship off the Alaska coast to survey ice floes and whale migrations in oil-exploration zones. Airware, a company that builds autopilot computers for drones, recently accepted $10.7 million in capital from Google Ventures (among other investors). And earlier in September, Boeing announced that it had retrofitted an F-16 into a pilotless drone capable of performing complex maneuvers such as barrel rolls.
The rise of domestic drones is sparking the inevitable pushback from regulators and civil-rights groups. The ACLU, for example, is particularly concerned about drone usage by law enforcement. “Drones should be deployed by law enforcement only with a warrant, in an emergency, or when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific criminal act,” the organization posted on its Website. “Images [from drone cameras] should be retained only when there is reasonable suspicion that they contain evidence of a crime or are relevant to an ongoing investigation or trial.”
Legislators have likewise agitated for some controls over how law enforcement deployed unmanned aerial vehicles, but usage by ordinary civilians and corporations remains a Wild West for the time being, sometimes literally: a proposed ordinance in the small Colorado town of Deer Trail would have issued hunting licenses for drones. “We don’t want a surveillance society here,” said the Deer Trail resident who first proposed the measure. But how do you regulate something like that? How do you distinguish a “drone,” for example, from a toy helicopter?
Right now, the FAA is keeping commercial use of drones tightly restricted. If they open up usage to more companies, however, it could bring the debate over domestic drones to the fore. Certainly states, law-enforcement agencies, and privacy advocates will all argue over the limits on drone usage in commercial and legal spheres. It could be quite some time before even a patchwork of regulations is in place.