Don’t shoot! That drone overhead probably isn’t invading your privacy

The first commercial medical drones are taking flight in the U.S., delivering blood samples and other medical specimens from a clinic to a lab in North Carolina. Right now, they’re just on one hospital campus and not flying over private homes or businesses. But that’s coming soon.

In our research about consumer perceptions of aircraft, we’ve found that in general, people don’t want drones flying over their homes. Helicopters and planes are less of a concern, because they’re usually so high and far away – and people who live near airports are more worried about noise than being spied on.

People see drones, however, as different. They often carry video equipment and are sometimes hard to detect due to their small size. In addition, they can hover for long periods of time, whereas manned aircraft tend to move along quickly. Most people we’ve surveyed express some fear about drones – or their operators – violating their privacy by hovering nearby and potentially videotaping them. That has certainly happened.

We have found that women are generally more concerned than men, particularly when they assume that the drone can take photos or videos. Some people have been so concerned about drones – especially when they lack clear indication of who owns them or are afraid the government is spying on them – that they’ve shot down drones flying over their yards. There are even some companies developing anti-drone weapons designed specifically for these situations.

[embedded content] Not yet available for public use: DroneDefender.
So far, shooting down a drone has not been punished as harshly as shooting at a manned aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration has tried to address some public concerns with rules governing personal drones and commercial drone flights. But if drone use is really ever going to take off – both privately and in businesses – the rules need to be a lot clearer for everyone.

What are drones allowed to do?

In most communities, there are not explicit rules on what drone operators are and aren’t allowed to do with their aircraft. The FAA’s general rules ban drones from flying more than 400 feet above the ground, or over people, or above public events. Operators also have to keep their drones in sight at all times.

Drones that are flying for legitimate reasons are usually going to follow a logical path associated with their purpose, like following a pipeline route, surveying property boundaries or examining construction sites. They may hover from time to time, to let operators get a better view of something, but they probably aren’t spying on you – unless they clearly violate reasonable expectations, like following you around a neighborhood or hovering right outside a bedroom window or above a person sunbathing in the yard.

Not every drone flying near your home is feeding video to a peeping Tom. It’s worth remembering that there are, in fact, legitimate reasons drones might be flying around near your home.

Do you hear sirens?

Police agencies around the country use drones to assist with documenting crime scenes, help with event-security planning or assist officers with a standoff. Even though these drones are government-owned and usually equipped with cameras, most likely they’re not trying to invade your privacy.

[embedded content] Drones deliver lifesaving blood to patients in Rwanda.
Police, fire and medical services are very interested in using drones for rapid responses to emergencies. They can fly medicine and equipment into areas where ambulances, and potentially even helicopters, cannot easily go. In Rwanda, drones can deliver a package of fresh blood to anywhere in the western half of the country in less than an hour.

Drones can also help responders plan rescue efforts, identifying areas hit hardest and finding victims in need of aid. People in the affected area can even communicate with drone operators by holding up signs for the cameras.