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Wary eyes shift to the skies as unmanned aircraft are tested in state

Unmanned aircraft are being tested in Oklahoma for possible civilian uses, such as by police departments. But testing of the state-of-the-art crafts also has raised privacy concerns.
by Phillip O'Connor Published: December 31, 2012

Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., introduced legislation that seeks to bar the FAA from issuing licenses unless the application explains, among other things, who will operate the drone, where it will be flown and what kind of data will be collected. The bill also calls for the FAA to create a public website that includes license information, the times and locations of drone flights and any data security breaches by a license holder.

The legislation also would require a warrant or extreme circumstances for law enforcement to conduct surveillance.

Gielow said his group has met with privacy advocates and more than 100 congressional offices seeking a compromise bill that privacy advocates and industry can support.

“People feel the government will abuse this technology,” Gielow said. “If we can assure them that government won't abuse it, or if they do they will be dealt with and punished, then the public will have some confidence.”

“Let's not pass Draconian restrictions that can prevent it from being used for good public-safety missions,” Gielow said.

No systems being tested in Oklahoma are capable of facial recognition, and images are not being matched against any database, according to a privacy impact statement filed by the Homeland Security Department. Any images collected of non-volunteers or of areas outside the test boundaries are deleted.

Rural test site

Mission control for the drone tests is a converted one-story brick house surrounded by cow pastures near Elgin.

To reach the Oklahoma Training Center for Unmanned Systems, visitors travel a potholed, two-lane blacktop and turn into a driveway flanked by entry posts topped with black horse heads. The center also includes an airplane hangar and a bumpy runway that offers immediate access to Fort Sill's restricted airspace.

The test site is operated by Oklahoma State University's Multispectral Laboratory, which provides logistics and support for the federal program.

The drones being tested will be both fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft that weigh less than 25 pounds and that can be assembled and launched quickly. Flight tests for each system take place over five days. The tests will measure setup time, handling, video quality, reliability and other characteristics.

“The end point is open,” said Appleby, the Homeland Security official overseeing the testing. “We hope it will go a year or even two.”

Little local interest

Several local agencies said they have no plans to pursue drone technology.

A spokesman with the Oklahoma County Sheriff's Department said the topic had not been discussed.

A spokesman for the Oklahoma National Guard, which has dozens of helicopters and airplanes, said that although it has a representative on the drone testing program's working group, it has no immediate need for such aircraft.

“I think we can meet all of our current mission with the assets we currently have,” Maj. Geoff Legler said.

The Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, which flies seven planes and two helicopters, also has not had any discussion about the possible use of drones, a spokesman said.

But Lt. George Brown didn't rule out their possible use in the future. “Anytime we can put an unmanned drone in a situation that doesn't put a trooper or a pilot in danger, why not be interested in that?” he said.

The Oklahoma City Police Department has had discussions about drone capabilities, but Capt. Dexter Nelson said “as far as us getting them, I don't see that in the realm of possibility.”

“I don't think the civilian population of the United States is ready for unmanned aircraft flying over their neighborhoods,” Nelson said. “The general public knows that technology is to be used in war. I don't think they're ready for that.”

by Phillip O'Connor
Enterprise Editor
O'Connor joined the Oklahoman staff in June, 2012 after working at The Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a combined 28 years. O'Connor, an Oklahoma City resident, is a graduate of Kansas State University. He has written frequently...
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