Drones: Eyes in the sky

Last week in Grand Forks, N.D., first responders attended a short course in what drones can do for them.

The project coordinator, Alan Frazier, teaches at the University of North Dakota, and is a deputy sheriff himself. He demonstrated a 36-inch DraganFlyer drone equipped with infrared in a gymnasium. "We have the IR sensor on the aircraft, so you're going to see everything in black and white. White is hot, black is dark, or cold."

The irony here is that the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Department -- like every other law enforcement agency -- has to get a special license from the FAA before it can use an unmanned aircraft.

But today, you or I could go online, order a drone kit for a few hundred dollars, and fly the thing anywhere, legally.

Terry Kilby, a smartphone app designer, and his wife, Belinda, an art teacher, use theirs to take bird's-eye view photographs of Baltimore.

"We can get something that is a totally unique and fresh perspective on images that you would ordinarily think that you've already seen before, but now it's a completely new take on it," said Belinda.

But where there are drones, there's controversy, such as at a city council meeting in Seattle where anti-drone advocate spoke. On Thursday, the mayor ordered Seattle's police force to end its unmanned aerial vehicle program.

At least 11 states have legislation pending that would restrict or ban drone use, including Texas.

State Representative Lance Gooden is one of the Texas bill's sponsors. "Invasion of privacy is the number one issue," he said. "With these drones you can hover over someone's backyard, a foot off the ground, you can film into someone's back living room, you can record conversations."

But Alan Frazier believes regulation is premature.

"If at the time the Wright Brothers were experimenting with powered flight a governmental agency had stepped in and said, 'We have privacy concerns about this,' I wonder whether we would be where we are with air travel now," Frazier said.

In its infancy now, drone technology is growing up fast.

Matt Keennon headed the team at AeroVironment that developed the hummingbird for the Department of Defense. It weighs less than an ounce. And yes, it has a color video camera.

So here's the question: Do you think it's really cool? Or does it scare you?

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