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Debate on drones raises issue of safety vs. privacy

| Monday, May 20, 2013, 12:20 a.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
The Trib Total Media Copter in action at the David Lawrence Convention Center, April 18, 2013

Elmer Burger II looks up across the room at an architects' cocktail party as he hears the quick, repetitive chop of 4-inch helicopter blades cutting through the air.

The Tribune-Review drone just darts among tables where people stand talking, hovers over a buffet line and rises 15 feet in the air to survey the room. A tiny camera records what it sees.

Many participants at AIA Pittsburgh's annual Build Pittsburgh event said their expectations of privacy end when they leave home.

“We grew up with the Bond movies, and that's for real now,” Burger, 65, of Mt. Lebanon, says to a group of people.

Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering legislation to regulate aerial drones, something several other states have done. Yet wall-mounted surveillance cameras, overhead satellites and even cellphones ubiquitously capture scenes of daily life.

In moments such as the Boston Marathon bombing, those pieces of equipment can provide critical information to police.

“I prefer safety over privacy,” Sean Donnelly, 41, of Mt. Lebanon said during the party. “Everyone has access to document where you are.”

Amateur drones such as the Trib's helicopter — which is small enough to fit in the palm of a hand and costs less than $50 — are changing privacy boundaries again.

The Trib drone flies only indoors and for a limited time. Slightly more expensive models are able to hover semi-discretely outside, peering into public places, bedrooms and backyards.

Banded together with emerging technologies to identify human faces, the machines will allow anyone to watch and record.

“There's a line to draw: If you're doing a little skinny-dipping, you want to be aware,” Michael Brunner, 45, of Robinson said with a smile. “I'm sure that will be defined over the next couple of years as we figure this out.”

Andrew Conte is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7835 or andrewconte@tribweb.com.

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