DETROIT (Det. Free Press) -- Last September, a gunman barricaded himself on the top floor of his West Bloomfield home. He had already killed one police officer and fired shots at others.
Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard sent a deputy to a Brookstone store in Novi to buy a $300 Parrot A.R. Drone 2.0 App-Controlled Quadricopter.
Bouchard hoped that the camera-equipped, remote-controlled drone, with its ability to hover in midair, would allow police to see inside the house without putting more officers' lives at risk.
"I was unwilling to send my people into a firefight without having any kind of information on what they were going into," Bouchard recalled.
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Perhaps best known for their role in military operations overseas, an increasing number of drones are taking to U.S. skies. Most are much smaller and far less sophisticated than the Predator drones used by the U.S. military.
They can be deployed in a police standoff, sent up to give firefighters real-time information on fighting a fire or used by a real estate company to create an aerial video tour of a home for sale.
A federal law enacted last year streamlined the process for public agencies, including police departments, to get drone licenses and paved the way for commercial use. About 7,500 small, commercially operated drones -- not including drones flown by public bodies -- will be active in the U.S. in about five years, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
As domestic drone use has grown, so have concerns about privacy, safety, regulation and the potential for abuse, such as fears of unwarranted spying on people by police agencies or even by other citizens. Lawmakers in several states, including Michigan, are weighing rules to regulate the use of drones.
"The bill is really designed to make sure that we're protecting people's rights," state Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, said of the drone legislation he intends to introduce next week. "We don't want Big Brother flying over watching all our activities."
For years the FAA has allowed drones, also known as unmanned aerial systems, to be used domestically for environmental monitoring, firefighting, disaster relief and search and rescue. The Department of Homeland Security uses them to monitor borders and ports.
Drones can be equipped with high-powered cameras, microphones, infrared devices and various other high-tech tools.
A technically advanced cousin of remote-controlled model planes, the commercial and hobbyist versions range from less than $100 to thousands of dollars, depending on their size and sophistication. Drones available for purchase online or in stores for hobbyists measure from about 5 inches wide up to 3 or 4 feet.
Ryan Calo, a privacy law expert and professor of law at the University of Washington, said the widespread use of drones in the U.S. seems inevitable.
"Often when the cost of surveillance goes down, people do more of it. It's expensive to have a helicopter. It's expensive to have a plane. It's less expensive to have a drone," he said.
The cost of drones versus helicopters makes them appealing to cash-strapped police departments.
At the barricaded gunman scene in West Bloomfield, the quadricopter, designed to be controlled by a smartphone or tablet, was not stable enough to be useful. But Bouchard said the incident was a perfect example of when a similar device could be valuable to law enforcement.
He pointed to a train derailment years ago that spewed toxic fumes in the air, preventing a helicopter from getting close.
"When people hear the word drone, I think they think of what's being deployed in the Middle East," Bouchard said. "High altitude, many hours of orbiting and, in some cases, carrying a lethal payload. ... What we picked up from Brookstone is what you can pick up for your 10-year-old kid."
Harry Arnold paid more than $4,000 to make and equip the four-propeller drone he uses in his home-based business, Detroit Drone. He takes aerial images for construction companies and other clients.
For safety reasons, Arnold said, he welcomes better regulations over civilian drone use.
"Right now, there's no law stopping a 13-year-old from buying one of these at Best Buy and flying over (Comerica Park). ... I want to see it be regulated before aforementioned 13-year-old flies his drone around (Comerica Park) during the first inning because he thinks he will be cool and he crashes and hurts everybody, and all of a sudden, drones are illegal," he said.
Under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress directed the FAA to develop guidelines for safely accelerating the integration of drones into the national airspace system by September 2015. Calo said the act was intended to streamline the process by which public and private entities can get licenses to fly drones.
Since 2007, the agency has issued 1,428 certificates of authorization allowing for drone use by police departments, universities (among them the University of Michigan), and other public bodies. According to the FAA, 327 of those permits were still active as of Feb. 15.
Private companies, such as drone manufacturers, can fly drones for testing, demonstration and training after getting an experimental airworthiness certificate from the FAA.
Hobbyists and recreational users of model aircraft currently don't need any special licensing but are encouraged to follow guidelines that are outlined in a 1981 circular. The guidelines say model aircraft should be operated at a site that is a "sufficient distance from populated areas" and not flown above 400 feet.
Right now, there are no provisions for commercial, for-hire unmanned aircraft operations, but Calo said that's expected to change.
Many states aren't waiting for the federal government to address concerns about privacy. Lawmakers in more than 25 states have proposed legislation related to drone use.
Some cities, fearful of abuse, have banned or considered banning their use by law enforcement. Police in Seattle recently scrapped plans to use two high-tech drones following protests from residents.
In Michigan, McMillin is working on legislation that would prohibit government use of drones except under limited circumstances.
It is based on model legislation created by the American Civil Liberties Union, which says that law enforcement should only use the devices with a warrant or in emergency situations when a person's safety is imminently threatened. The bill also sets parameters on how data is collected, used and retained.
The technology behind drones is evolving quickly, McMillin said.
"I think there's probably going to be legal issues tomorrow that we don't know about today. ... It's uncharted territory, for sure," he said.
A Jan. 30 Congressional Research Service report prepared for lawmakers outlined some of the legal questions.
"Several legal interests are implicated by drone flight over or near private property. Might such a flight constitute a trespass? A nuisance? If conducted by the government, a constitutional taking?" the report asked.
Courts have generally upheld the principle that people do not enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy in public, even on portions of their own property visible from a public vantage. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.
An ACLU report about drones says the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed some warrantless aerial surveillance from manned aircraft but has not taken a position on whether the Fourth Amendment limits government use of drone surveillance.
"I think the nexus is this concept of what is public, and what is private?" said Shelli Weisberg, legislative director for the ACLU of Michigan. "Just because you're out in public, does it mean that nothing you're doing is private? Is the conversation with the person you're walking with private? Those are the things that will be (eventually) tested by the courts."
Both Weisberg and Calo said that when it comes to drones, current privacy law is inadequate.
"If the idea (is) that these things are going to follow folks around or patrol a particular neighborhood, there isn't much in American privacy law that stands in the way," Calo said.
Privacy isn't the only concern.
This week, an Italian airline pilot reported spotting a small, black drone hovering just a few hundred feet from his passenger plane as it made a final approach for a landing at New York's JFK Airport.
The pilot reported the drone was flying at about 1,800 feet some 3 miles from the airport, according to various published reports.
Although the plane landed safely, the incident drew the attention of the FAA and counterterrorism officials in New York and at the FBI.
Contact Ann Zaniewski: 313-222-6594 or email@example.com