Laws Lag Behind Drone Technology

BOULDER - When most of us hear the word "drone," we immediately think of the military flying machines being used overseas in the war on terror. However, there's a growing demand to put unmanned aircraft in the sky here at home. Entrepreneurs are champing at the bit to use the technology already at their fingertips, but they and privacy experts alike have concerns that our laws are lagging behind the technology.

9NEWS got the first inside look at a company in Boulder that makes a model of drone called the "Tempest."

It has a ten-foot wingspan, and boasts speeds up to 120 mph, all powered by a battery that's like a large version of what's in your cell phone. The company is called UAS USA. UAS stands for "Unmanned Aerial System," the unassuming technical name for the aircraft.

The name "drone" is much more likely to stick with the public.

Tempest inventor Skip Miller held up an issue of time magazine that demonstrates the image problem he faces. "It's a predator flying over suburbia with lights on in the house," Miller said. The Tempest is designed to be the opposite of that.

It features elegant lines and was built from the ground up for civilian applications. "The softer side of drones is who we are," Miller said. Miller built the first Tempest for the University of Colorado, which uses them to study tornadoes and thunderstorms. Staring at $15,000, there are now 50 of them in use. Miller sees countless peaceful uses for his invention. "Search and rescue where up at Rocky Mountain National Park just recently we lost a hiker," Miller said. "Those are tragic events where you put personnel on the ground usually on horseback." A drone could do the job more quickly, launching cameras and heat sensors in minutes to find the person. The entire mission is programmed on a tablet computer, which can be used to modify the flight path of the drone with a simple touch on the screen. This is the technology that makes it a drone. The demand for private drones is growing. Domino's pizza cooked up an idea to use them to make deliveries. But some question whether we are really ready to see the skies over our neighborhood full of these machines. "The law that protects privacy is not advancing at the same degree that the technology is to invade it," said Denise Maes with ACLU Colorado. "That's the problem." Maes says she wants Colorado lawmakers to make decisions soon about what you can and can't do with drones. "We're running behind so we'd better have [the discussion] now," Maes said. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colorado) recently introduced a bill in Congress aimed at preventing drones from being used for surveillance on people without their permission. Drone makers like Miller agree the law is behind. On a demonstration flight for 9NEWS, he had to fly the tempest manually like a remote controlled plane. It's illegal to use it as a drone without special permission from the FAA for commercial purposes. That's one reason that CU Boulder is attempting to secure one of several planned testing sites for commercial drones, while the FAA works out its regulations for the machines. The technology is ready, but despite the potential for use industry, Miller's customer base is mainly made up of universities and government agencies. Until the rules are clear, he says people will be nervous to take advantage of everything drones like his can do. (KUSA-TV © 2013 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)