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Remote-control aircraft spark debate on privacy issues

| Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, 9:19 p.m.
CK1 Productions
A Quadcopter has four blades, which provides the necessary stability to carry a camera. Typically a Quadcopter can maneuver in and out of buildings and elevate hundreds of feet in the air.
CK1 Productions
Route 22 takes on a different look in a photograph taken from the camera attached to a Quadcopter.

A camera the size of a honeybee fluttering outside of a bedroom window or an unmanned aircraft looming over streets are just two scenarios that helped spark a debate over model aircraft with video capability.

Helicopters and gliders with cameras attached are in demand from hobbyists and business owners, while some people have voiced worries that the technology is outpacing privacy laws.

About four remote-controlled aircraft capable of holding a camera are sold per week at J&C Hobby in Penn Hills, co-owner Betty Pusateri said.

Many of the customers who purchased helicopters in recent months expressed interest in attaching a camera, she said.

“There are people everywhere with these,” Pusateri said.

There is no law prohibiting hobbyists from attaching a camera to a model aircraft, she said.

“Quadcopters are a thing that could go up and over a property to see things you wouldn't want them to, like if you're sunbathing in the nude on your back deck or something,” she said.

There are two different unnamed aircraft with video surveillance capability.

One is a drone, which allows the operator to steer from miles away with a first-person view of the plane's flight path.

The other is a quadcopter, which flies within view of the operator but has the ability to shoot photos or video.

Attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union are focused more on regulating the use of unmanned surveillance aircraft by law enforcement agencies, said Sara Rose, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Pittsburgh office.

“Law enforcement should only be permitted to use drones where there are grounds to believe they will collect evidence relating to a specific instance of criminal wrongdoing or in emergencies,” Rose said.

Neither the state police nor the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office has used unmanned aircraft as part of their investigations, spokesmen from both agencies said last week.

Some law-enforcement specialists argue that unmanned aerial surveillance could revolutionize criminal investigations.

“Any time you're staking out a building, let's just say waiting for a drug buy, having something aerial-wise to get a larger picture of where your guys are and where the bad guys are could be a tremendous thing,” said former Monroeville detective and council candidate Ron Harvey.

Harvey said local investigators should be trusted to use the technology ethically and within the law.

State legislation to place a moratorium on the use of drones by law enforcement for the next two years recently was introduced by state Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon County).

The bill addresses the worry that drones might violate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches. It would, however, allow exceptions for military training or the U.S. Department of Defense.

The bill is under review by the state government committee.

As of April, lawmakers in 29 states were considering legislation to clarify or regulate the use of drones, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

While Congress set a 2015 starting date for the commercial use of drones, the commercial use of quadcopters is within the law.

Local businessman Curtis Von said he's keeping a close eye on legislation regarding the use of quadcopters, along with his colleagues at CK1 Productions in Trafford.

The multimedia company uses a quadcopter with a camera to film aerial videos at golf courses and construction sites. The footage is used for promotional or engineering purposes.

It's much cheaper and more maneuverable than a real helicopter, Von said.

“When we show (businesses) the demo of what we can do, they're all over it,” he said.

The business charges a minimum of $2,000, depending on the scope of the project, Von said.

Penn Hills hobbyist Joe Dantonio said he hopes any legislation will not affect the use of drones by civilians who operate under the guidelines of the Academy of Model Aeronautics.

He said recreational drones are educational.

“It's kind of like the world's greatest video game,” Dantonio said. “You're putting yourself in the pilot's seat and actually flying. There's a lot of science to make it operate correctly.”

Several websites feature quadcopters for purchase, and micro cameras can be found on eBay for $15, said Irwin hobbyist Bill Pilesi, president of the Keystone Clippers radio control club.

“I can see people being concerned, with everything from peeping toms to private eyes,” Pilesi said.

Kyle Lawson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8755, or klawson@tribweb.com.

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