Sept. 15--When a small, camera-equipped drone hovered over recent demonstrations near the Galleria, the unmanned aircraft with glowing lights did more than startle some protestors.
The Aug. 31 overflight launched worries about possible government surveillance of two peaceful gatherings of groups supporting, and opposing, U.S. military intervention in Syria. And it raised safety concerns, as the unmanned aircraft flew close to vehicles.
"He had it literally right on top of cars, very low, to where it would affect their vision," said Abeer Patel, who attended the demonstration. "It looked like a helicopter toy, and then I noticed a black camera attached to it."
A Houston police officer asked the drone operator to quit flying the aircraft so low, Patel said.
It remains unclear who was operating the drone, and the flight appears to have violated FAA flight rules. But the buzz over drones in Houston comes at a crucial time in the future of unmanned aircraft flights in U.S. skies, as regulations are being finalized to determine who can use them, where they can be flown and what they can photograph.
On Sept.1, the Texas Privacy Act became law after Gov. Rick Perry signed legislation prohibiting drone operations over private property without the owner's permission. The new law, which has exceptions for emergency public safety situations, has frustrated Texas law enforcement agencies who already have purchased unmanned aircraft.
Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration is hammering out final flight rules for Unmanned Aerial Systems -- the agency's name for drones ranging in size from a Boeing 737 to a model airplane -- and expect to implement them next year. At the same time, U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, has filed a proposed federal law he hopes will pass later this fall that keeps government drones from filming private property not in plain view or individuals without first obtaining a court warrant.
"The goal is to protect the right of privacy of citizens in a very evolving, high-technology time," said Poe, a former Houston state district judge who wants to make sure the constitutional protections against illegal searches are preserved. "You can't go fly a drone and trump the Fourth Amendment."
Warrant in 48 hours
Poe's proposed law would not require police to get a warrant in emergency situations, including when there is immediate danger of death or serious physical injury to a person, conspiratorial activities that threaten national security or organized crime operations. But it would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant within 48 hours of the emergency, and justify aerial recordings if they captured individuals.
It also requires law enforcement agencies who have FAA authority to operate a drone to report to the U.S. attorney general how the aircraft will be used, how long it plans to keep surveillance footage, as well as destruction of unneeded images. The proposed law also allows the Justice Department to seek revocation of a law agency's drone license from the FAA if privacy protections are not met.
FAA officials in Washington said that, as of February, 327 public agencies have been authorized to operate unmanned aerial systems for law enforcement for missions including fighting fires, patrolling the Texas-Mexico border, and search and rescue operations.
The Arlington Police Department used $202,000 in federal grant money to buy a pair of Leptron Avengers, single-rotor unmanned helicopters they use to manage traffic accidents on Metroplex highways, as well as mapping large crime scenes. The 11-pound drones, which are almost 5 feet long, can fly for an hour and send images back to police headquarters, said Lt. Christopher Cook.
But the new Texas Privacy Act has concerned police, who say the requirement to get permission of property owners before flying their drone over private property could delay operations.
Cook said the Arlington department's major concern with the new law "is it would restrict our access, because we would be required to contact each property owner before we can deploy the unit."
At issue is whether unmanned aerial systems (UAS) will ever provide "an equivalent level of safety" to manned aircraft operating in the NAS.
State Rep. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer and the task force chair, pushed for the group's creation after hearing from residents worried about spying by drone aircraft.
Grand Forks Sheriff's Department uses drones for patrol at night
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