TRAVERSE CITY — Jared Beaudry and his classmates are frustrated with friends who confuse the Predator drones used in Afghanistan with the more peaceful uses they’re learning about at Northwestern Michigan College.
“It’s because they’re ignorant,” Beaudry said. “It’s just not the case.”
Right now, only law enforcement agencies can use drones. Approval for commercial uses — such as aerial scanning cornfields for pests— could come about within the next 18 months, said Tony Sauerbrey, who heads up NMC’s specialized drone program — the only one in Michigan that offers operational instruction of what Sauerbrey prefers to call unmanned aerial vehicles.
Drones hit the news recently when Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul pressed President Barack Obama for an answer on whether drones can be used to kill Americans on foreign soil. A U.S. Senate subcommittee held hearings on privacy and law enforcement issues.
A Michigan legislator recently introduced a bill that would ban the arming of drones and allow their use only with a search warrant or in the event of imminent danger. Information gained in an “unauthorized manner” couldn’t be used in courts. The bill also requires reporting on the use of drones and data collected.
Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley said the bill hasn’t been on his radar since the department can’t afford to buy a $100,000 drone.
Bensley talked to NMC about sharing drones for law enforcement uses. Not only would it save money, it also would give NMC students a chance to practice outside of the dirt airstrip at Yuba Airport, the only place they’re approved to operate the small planes. But the federal government denied the request, Bensley said.
“We can’t even get off the ground yet, so it’s no concern,” he said.
Mayor Michael Estes supports restrictions on drones and hopes the proposed legislation passes.
“We won’t have to fight another battle like fireworks,” he said.
John Whitehead, head of the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit that defends civil liberties, fears drones could put free speech “up for grabs,” if drones are used to disperse crowds with rubber bullets or sound canons with eardrum-piercing sounds.
“If you see them coming down the street and have a picket sign, what should you do? I say, ‘run,’” he said.
But his greatest fear is the issue of privacy. Police can use drones to detect speeding cars or even folks illegally texting on their phone. The newly developed mosquito drone can perch on someone’s neck and record conversations.
“If we don’t slow down, there will be no privacy,” he said. “Drones will make us chickens in cages; we’ll be watched all the time.”
Sauerbrey, who frequently discusses drone ethics with his students, said surveillance is limited by technology; law enforcement agencies primarily use helicopters that can remain aloft for only about 15 minutes.
“The main uses are taking aerial photos of crime and accident scenes, and very specific cases of hostage stand-offs, or when they’re looking for a lost person. They’re not using them in a random sense,” Sauerbrey said.
He said people confuse the issue of drones with the fact that humans — often teams of people — control how they are used and will be held accountable.
But he concedes that technology will change, and stresses that the drone industry fully supports rules to avoid privacy problems.
He wants the public to become more aware of a drones’ positive uses, such as checking on towering wind turbines, bridges, or petro-chemical flare stacks.
“It’s such neat technology with good uses,” Sauerbrey said. “It’s frustrating to see some of this negativity popping up. It’s overshadowing how great this can be for everybody.”