Meet Your Neighborhood Drones
Last week, a video surfaced on YouTube of what appeared to be a drone hovering over a residential neighborhood in West Oakland. Filmed by videographer Jacob Crawford, the eerie unmanned aircraft was held aloft by several mini helicopter-like blades with blinking red-and-green lights.
Drones have been a pressing issue for our friends across the bay; in December, the Alameda County Sheriff's Department incited anger and paranoia when it revealed plans to buy its own drone, for whatever reason. However, the $31,646 item was put on hold after the American Civil Liberties Union accused the department of trying to slip it past East Bay folks without enough public vetting. Sheriff Greg Ahern assured the Chronicle that he would only use the drone for "mission-specific incidents" such as search-and-rescue missions.
Ahern, who says he doesn't have his own drone, has insisted the aircraft would not be for spying on civilians. So then why did Crawford's video include a clip of Ahern talking about how the unmanned aircraft had great surveillance potential?
Specifically, he says, "We wouldn't use it for Occupy Oakland movement; however, I'm not going to tell you we wouldn't use it in the event that a crowd turned violent and and started vandalizing or harming people."
So if the drone above doesn't belong to the Alameda County Sheriff's Department, then whose is it?
The device belongs to a hobbyist named Cody Oliver, who reached out to Crawford when he saw the video. If you keep up with the tech world, Oliver's name may ring a bell -- he was a developer of the early P2P file-sharing network Gnutella and made the news last year when he stumbled upon cobbled-together Pentagon lightning guns while building tricked-out cars for Burning Man.
When asked about the privacy issues a civilian drone might present, he told SF Weekly, "In the day and age of nanny cams I don't think anyone has any privacy now. If someone wants to watch you, $50 bucks and a hidden cam is all that is needed." But he also assured us that he has no intentions of using his drones (yes, he's collecting) for surveillance. Instead, he's working on a terrain-mapping project for a friend. The flight captured on Crawford's video was intended to test the aircraft for stability -- the small propellers cause a vibration that can interfere with the craft's GPS.
Oliver also wasn't content with the term "drone" for his aircraft. Hobbyists call them UAVs -- unmanned aerial vehicles -- and aren't very happy about the legislative attempts to regulate their flights. In a forum about UAVs, one user wrote, "The entire community should stop using the word 'drone.' Drones, to me, are UAVs used for surveillance. That's what people are afraid of, the loss of privacy, not the aircraft itself. Stop associating with that. We have RC toys that we use for fun, not surveillance."
Although drones seem spooky, the potential for simple fun is clearly there. Oliver isn't the only person piloting drones through the Oakland skies; another hobbyist named Lloyd Ranola posted a video captured by his drone that features a scenic look at Mandela Parkway. The following video features stunning drone-recorded images of the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, and other tourist destinations (heads up: this drone flight is set to extremely loud dubstep).
And as entertaining as some civilians find drones, companies are also noticing their potential for commercial use. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) forbids commercial drone operation, and in January, the LAPD told off real estate agents for using them to create life-like walk-through videos of their properties.
With the popularity of UAVs already on the rise, we're sure to see many more of them in the sky by 2015, when the FAA will release regulations allowing commercially operated drones in the United States. According to Government Technology, the FAA predicts that as many as 15,000 drones will take flight by 2020. And although the Alameda County Sheriff's Department hasn't obtained one yet, 17 police departments across the country have applied for FAA permission to fly UAVs.
Whatever you think of drones, just know, they'll soon be flying in a neighborhood near you.