Drones deployed over disaster zones raise concerns at FAA

PENSACOLA, Florida -- Shortly after severe weather tore through the South this week, drones were in the sky. Equipped with cameras, they captured powerful images of the devastation.

But the FAA has concerns, especially when such devices are deployed over a disaster zone.

A search for tornado survivors in Arkansas, flash flooding in a Florida neighborhood and a highway sinkhole opened by torrential rains - all these images were captured by remote-controlled flying storm-chasers.

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Remote-controlled drones are capturing images of disasters
CBS News

Maintenance worker John Peters is a backyard drone enthusiast.

"I'm able to get to a pretty good distance with this," he said.

His Phantom drone, with its mounted camera, became key to a search operation on Wednesday near Pensacola. Its video reassured first responders no one was trapped inside a sinkhole.

"There are some things you can't see when you're on the ground, and when you get in the air, it's a whole different perspective," he said.

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Drones were in the air after flooding in the South
CBS News

Drone enthusiasts have to follow a couple of rules. They have to maintain a 400-foot ceiling for the drone and they also cannot sell the video for commercial purposes.

But the FAA has privacy concerns and safety concerns and is expected issue more regulations by the end of the year.

"We're still in a little bit of a gray area," said Jamey Jacob, a professor of aerospace engineering at Oklahoma State University.

"The technology is essentially outpacing the regulations right now, and it is taking some time for the regulations to catch up," he said.

This week, the FAA fined a New York man for recklessly flying and crashing his drone in Manhattan last September.

And the agency is investigating an Arkansas TV station for using a drone as part of its news coverage of a tornado this week.

Using drones for commercial purposes is currently banned but for research purposes is allowed.

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Students are designing drones to help predict tornadoes
CBS News

Jacobs' students are now designing drones to fly into storm cells and help predict tornadoes.

"This week just illustrates how important the need is for us to use unmanned technology in severe weather applications," Jacobs said. "These unmanned aircraft are really one of the perfect solutions to get this data."

The FAA is now testing drones in six states to determine its new regulations. When it comes to the drone's potential uses, enthusiasts like Peters believe the sky is the limit.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann was named CBS News Transportation correspondent in August 2011. He has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001, and is based in the Atlanta bureau.

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