All Tech Considered
3:35 pm
Mon May 12, 2014

As Drones Fly In Cities And Yards, So Do The Complaints

Originally published on Wed May 14, 2014 9:25 am

The price of drones is dropping — a decent one could cost you $300 — but the reality of the devices flying around cities and neighborhoods doesn't sit well with a lot of Americans.

Are they just paranoid?

Three months ago, when Michael Kirschner and his wife purchased a new condo in San Francisco, they were not concerned about drones. They fell in love with the unit because of its big picture windows.

"You have a view that reaches all the way out to the Golden Gate Bridge," Kirschner says.

Then one day Kirschner's wife was sitting in the living room and saw a drone with a camera hovering outside those beautiful windows.

"She started hiding behind furniture because something's looking in at you ... and you're very self-conscious about that all of a sudden," Kirschner says. "I found myself doing the same thing. You're hiding behind your own furniture in your own house where you just had privacy prior."

Kirschner shows me a video of the drone hovering outside. It's a bit small in the video, but it's very loud.

"It's like a bee. Zzzz. Flying out there," Kirschner says, sounding exasperated.

In a Pew Research Center poll, 63 percent of respondents said using drones for personal and commercial purposes would be a change for the worse.

One of the reasons often cited, says Aaron Smith, who conducted the poll, is privacy.

"This is a device that can look in my windows, look in my backyard, take pictures or videos of me and my family," Smith says. "You're not paranoid if they are, in fact, flying over your backyard and taking pictures of you at your barbecue."

The San Francisco Police Department hasn't had any complaints about drones, and Kirschner says he did not report the incident to police.

He did watch the drone land on his neighbor's porch, though, but decided not to confront the neighbor.

"Inevitably, you go down the path of, if it comes again, how are we going to get it out of the sky?" Kirschner says. "Can we throw things at it? Can we shoot water at it? The best idea I came up with was to buy some kind of remote control device and ram into it."

In terms of law, this is all uncharted territory. Local police say there are no laws directly applicable to drones, and it isn't clear if California's peeping Tom laws would apply.

This is San Francisco, though, a city filled with tech startups and engineers who enjoy tinkering with the latest technology; there are plenty of people who own drones. David Merrill, the CEO of a local startup, owns several.

Merrill shows me one that looks like a four-leaf clover with a dome on top. It's about the width of a beach ball. He points to a spot near the center. "This is where I can stick a camera," he says.

Merrill isn't out to spy on anyone. He's an amateur photographer who always wanted to take aerial shots of beaches, mountains and cityscapes.

"It used to be basically impossible to do that as a hobbyist," Merrill says. "Now for $500 to [$1,000], you can be totally up and running with a rig that'll get beautiful aerial photographs."

Merrill admits there are likely to be some downsides to more people using drones. "It's like any technology. There's going to be good ways it can be used, and there's going to be negative ways it can be used. And that's just kind of the deal with new, empowering tools and systems."

However, a lot of the public, even here at the center of the tech revolution, is more skeptical. I visited a local strip mall and asked shoppers what they thought of having more commercial and personal drones. The responses were overwhelmingly negative. The issue of privacy came up immediately. One woman specifically cited worries about drones looking through windows.

"It's too much of big brother watching us as it is," says shopper Erica Wright.

Janel Hollands says it's yet another way technology is being used to snoop on us. "It's similar to what's happening in every kind of arena. ... It's too much."

Joseph Yearby was ready to take action. "I'd do like them farmers out there in the Midwest — shoot 'em down."

However, law enforcement officials don't advise this solution.

Despite the reservations expressed by many of the people who spoke to NPR, they also seemed resolved to the fact that drones are coming. They'd just like to see it happen more slowly and for there to be clear rules about when and where people can use drones.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The idea of opening American airspace to drones is unpopular with much of the public. And last week on All Tech, my colleague Robert Siegel spoke with FAA administrator Michael Huerta about that.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Here's a hypothetical, by the way, I walk out of my house and there, about 250 feet about my lawn is a strange uninvited and, frankly, unwanted, unmanned flying object. Am I within my rights, assuming that I'm complying with all the gun laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, to go get a rifle and shoot it down? Or does whoever owns that thing have a right to hover over my property?

MICHAEL HUERTA: You've illustrated one of the big complex questions that we have been dealing with, with the use of unmanned aircraft for a long time. And that is, how are these things used and is there the potential for them to infringe upon your right to privacy?

BLOCK: Mr. Huerta went on to say you shouldn't shoot anything down. But he said you have a right to be concerned.

Now, NPR's Laura Sydell talked with someone for whom the question of a drone outside his window was not just hypothetical.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: When asked if you using drones for personal and commercial purposes was a change for the better, Americans had this to say.

AARON SMITH: About two-thirds of our respondents, 63 percent of them, said that that would be a change for the worse.

SYDELL: That's Aaron Smith who conducted the poll at the Pew Research Center. He says one of the reasons often cited for the discomfort with drones: Privacy.

SMITH: It gets at this notion of this is a device that can look in my windows, look in my backyard, take pictures or videos of me and my family.

SYDELL: So do you think people are just paranoid?

SMITH: What's the saying about paranoia? If they are, in fact, you know, flying over your backyard and...

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: ...taking pictures of you at your barbecue.

(LAUGHTER)

SYDELL: When he purchased a new condo in San Francisco three months ago, Michael Kirschner and his wife were not paranoid. They liked the view out of the big picture windows in the living room.

MICHAEL KIRSCHNER: You have a view that reaches all the way out to the Golden Gate Bridge. You can see the Pacific Ocean. You can see the mountains.

SYDELL: Then one day Kirschner's wife was sitting in the living room and saw a drone with a camera on it, hovering outside their windows.

KIRSCHNER: She got me. I came out. And then she started, like, hiding behind furniture because something's looking in at you, right? And...

(LAUGHTER)

KIRSCHNER: ...you're very self-conscious about that all of a sudden. And I found myself doing the same thing. You're hiding behind your own furniture in your own house where you just had privacy prior.

SYDELL: Kirschner shows me a video of the drone outside his window. It's not quiet. It's like a bee. Zzzz. Flying out there.

A spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department says it hasn't had any complaints about drones. And, in this case, Kirschner says he did not report the incident to police. He did watch the drone go back and land on his neighbor's porch, but decided not to confront the neighbor.

KIRSCHNER: Inevitably, you go down the path of, if it comes again, how are we going to get it out of the sky?

(LAUGHTER)

KIRSCHNER: Like, can we throw things at it? Can we shoot water at it? The best idea I came up with was to buy some kind of remote control device and ram into it.

(LAUGHTER)

SYDELL: In terms of law, this is all uncharted territory. Local police say there are no laws directly applicable to drones, and it isn't clear if California's Peeping Tom laws would apply. But this is San Francisco, a city filled with tech startups and engineers who enjoy tinkering with the latest technology. So it's not unlikely to run into someone who owns a drone or two.

DAVID MERRILL: And here's a couple of different drones.

SYDELL: David Merrill, the CEO of a local startup in the city, owns several drones. He's showing me one that looks like a four-leaf clover with a dome on the top. It's about the width of a beach ball.

MERRILL: So, this is where I can stick a camera.

SYDELL: Yes, there's room for a camera on his drone. Merrill is an amateur photographer and he always wanted to take aerial shots of beaches, mountains and cityscapes.

MERRILL: It used to be basically impossible to do that as a hobbyist. And now, for like for 500 to a thousand bucks, you can be totally up and running with a rig that'll get beautiful aerial photographs.

SYDELL: Merrill admits there are likely to be some downsides to more people using drones.

MERRILL: It's like any technology. There's going to be good ways it can be used. And there's going to be negative ways it can be used. And that's just kind of the deal with new, empowering tools and systems.

SYDELL: But a lot of the public, even here at the center of the tech revolution, is more skeptical than not. I visited a local strip mall and simply said: What do you think of more commercial and personal drones.

ERICA WRIGHT: Yeah, I don't like that. It's too much of big brother watching us as it is.

JOSEPH YEARBY: Well, I know it ain't as good for them that big. If they're flying around, no can do you (unintelligible). This man and stuff like that.

LESLIE PITTS: Similar to what's happening in every kind of arena.

JANELLE HOLLAND: Like, how much private stuff are we expected to put out? It's just, it's too much.

YEARBY: Where's one at? Did you one?

SYDELL: Not right now.

YEARBY: I'd shoot it down.

(LAUGHTER)

SYDELL: I'd be like them farmers out there in Midwest, shoot them down.

That was Joseph Yearby. His action is not advised by law enforcement. Other speakers were Erica Wright, Leslie Pitts and Janelle Holland.

Despite the reservations expressed by many of the people who spoke to NPR, they also seemed resolved to the fact that more drones are coming. They'd just like to see it happen more slowly and for there to be clear rules about when and where people can use drones.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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