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Private Drone Incident In Old Town Brings Up Privacy Issues

By Jim Bochnowski in News on Apr 15, 2015 8:00PM

On April 13, drone owner Jeff Joyce was showing his friends his private drone in Old Town when, suddenly, the machine's GPS signal was lost. The drone, per its programming, automatically landed, which is how it found itself in a stranger's backyard half a mile away.

As anyone would do when finding a strange piece of high-tech machinery in one's backyard, the home owners, fearing for their privacy, quickly pinned the drone beneath some lawn chairs and called the police, who reunited the device with its owner. The officer who responded to the call claimed it was his first time handling an issue such as this. We would suspect it will not be his last. For private citizens everywhere, incidents like this do raise the question about how to maintain privacy in your own backyard when anyone can fly a mechanized camera over your house.

To be clear: Drones are kind of awesome. They give you amazing views and let you see the sights from above. But as private drone use has become increasingly popular, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has struggled with how to regulate the industry.

While the FAA has proposed regulations for commercial drone use and the state of Illinois has recently banned police drone use without first obtaining a warrant, private drone use has been largely ignored. Under current regulations, drones are required to stay below 400 feet and stay at least five miles away from airports. However, even if the FAA was able to somehow craft additional regulations, most personal use drones remain small enough that they do not show up on radar, which would lessen the ability of an already over-stressed regulatory agency to limit the use of the technology.

Realistically, private drone use is an issue of local neighborly etiquette. In a densely crowded city, such as Chicago, one cannot imagine most people leaning over a fence and snapping a picture of your neighbor's yard. So even with the excuse of "showing off a new device," as Joyce claimed, it falls on the operator to personally assume responsibility of one's equipment to make sure there isn't even a whiff of impropriety. Because the more incidents that pop up like this, the more likely that the city, state or federal government will step in and put a stop to this cool hobby. And then we won't have videos like this, which would severely bum us out.