Sentiment for curbing domestic drone use has brought the left and right together perhaps more than any other recent issue. "The thought of government drones buzzing overhead and constantly monitoring the activities of law-abiding citizens runs contrary to the notion of what it means to live in a free society," Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said at a recent hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Privacy advocates acknowledge the many good uses of drones. In Mesa County, Colo., for example, an annual landfill survey using manned aircraft cost about $10,000. The county recently performed the same survey using a drone for about $200.
But drones' virtues can also make them dangerous, they say. Their low cost and ease of use may encourage police and others to conduct the kind of continuous or intrusive surveillance that might otherwise be impractical. Drones can be equipped with high-powered cameras and listening devices, and infrared cameras that can see people in the dark.
"High-rise buildings, security fences or even the walls of a building are not barriers to increasingly common drone technology," Amie Stepanovich, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Council's surveillance project, told the Senate panel.
Civilian drone use is limited to government agencies and public universities that have received a few hundred permits from the FAA. A law passed by Congress last year requires the FAA to open U.S. skies to widespread drone flights by 2015, but the agency is behind schedule and it's doubtful it will meet that deadline. Lawmakers and industry officials have complained for years about the FAA's slow progress.
The FAA estimates that within five years of gaining broader access about 7,500 civilian drones will be in use.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., recently drew attention to the domestic use of drones when he staged a Senate filibuster, demanding to know whether the president has authority to use weaponized drones to kill Americans on American soil. The White House said no, if the person isn't engaged in combat. But industry officials worry that the episode could temporarily set back civilian drone use.
"The opposition has become very loud," said Gitlin of AeroVironment, "but we are confident that over time the benefits of these solutions (drones) are going to far outweigh the concerns, and they'll become part of normal life in the future."
Associated Press writer Michael Felberbaum in Richmond, Va., contributed to this report.