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A Drone of Your Own: Not Your Average RC Aircraft

Kevin Good thought there was an 80 percent chance he could successfully deliver his brother’s wedding rings with a drone.

“The other 20 percent is that it could go crashing into the bride’s mother’s face,” the Bethesda, Md., filmmaker told his brother. His brother was OK with the odds, despite the risk to his mother-in-law’s makeup, and signed off.

A few weeks ago, sitting in the back row at the ceremony near San Francisco, Good steered the tiny drone to the altar, delivering the payload in front of 100 or so astonished guests. His brother grabbed the rings, then watched as Good buzzed the drone off into the blue sky.

“At the end of the wedding, that was what everyone was talking about,” Good said. “It was pretty awesome.”

This is the gee-whiz side of drones, a technology typically associated with surprise air assaults on terrorists. Drones designed to do the bidding of ordinary people can be bought online for $300 or less. They are often no larger than hubcaps, with tiny propellers that buzz the devices hundreds of feet into the air. But these are much more sophisticated than your average remote-controlled airplane: They can fly autonomously, find locations via GPS, return home with the push of button, and carry high-definition cameras to record flight.

Besides wedding stunts, personal drones have been used for all kinds of high-minded purposes — helping farmers map their crops, monitoring wildfires in remote areas, locating poachers in Africa. One drone user is recording his son’s athletic prowess at a bird’s angle for recruiting videos.

But not every flier is virtuous. There are videos on YouTube of people arming drones with paintball guns. In one video — apparently a well-done hoax to promote a new video game — a man appears to fire a machine gun attached to a small drone and steer the device into an abandoned car to blow it up.

Privacy and civil rights activists worry about neighbors spying on each other and law enforcement agencies’ use of drones for surveillance or, potentially, to pepper-spray protesters.

“Drones make it possible to invade privacy without even trespassing,” said Amie Stepanovich, a surveillance expert at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “This is a real concern.”

The Washington region is a hotbed of personal-drone deployment, possibly because of the area’s tech-wonkiness and wealth. Nearly 500 people belong to the D.C. Area Drone User Group, making it the largest such organization in the country. They have been assembling for almost a year, working on flying safety, spreading a more benevolent message about drones and incubating ideas for companies.

“What this is really about is a grand experiment in taking a technology and making it empowering instead of disempowering,” said Timothy Reuter, the group’s leader, whose day job is at the U.S. Agency for International Development. “I believe we can take this technology and start with ordinary people to create small businesses, to do art, to monitor the natural resources of the community.”

But already, several law enforcement agencies across the country, including the Queen Anne’s County Sheriff’s Office on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, have purchased the devices. Meanwhile, as many as 40 states, including Maryland, have considered legislation to limit drone use for police or ban the devices. A small Colorado town is weighing an ordinance to allow hunters to shoot down drones.

In supporting a Maryland bill to limit law enforcement use of drones, an American Civil Liberties Union official testified, “In short, all the pieces appear to be lining up for the eventual introduction of routine aerial surveillance in American life, a development that would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States.”

Drone defenders, including the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, say those fears are overblown and threaten the potential economic benefits of commercial drones. The group predicts 70,000 new U.S. jobs and a nearly $14 billion economic boost — if privacy fears don’t get in the way.

“These concerns have had an impact on us,” said Ben Gielow, the general counsel for the unmanned-vehicle group. “There is a widespread belief that these are just military systems for persistent domestic surveillance. That’s just not the case.”

Right now, drones operate under the same rules as radio-controlled planes. Commercial use is not legal, meaning Good could not, for instance, start a drone wedding-ring delivery service. Congress has mandated that the Federal Aviation Administration come up with rules by 2015 to integrate drones into the nation’s airspace. Hobbyists are supposed to fly the devices below 400 feet.

That has not stopped scores of devices from entering the market. There are generally three types of personal drones available.

There is the toy market, which features devices such as the Parrot AR.Drone. It sells for $300 and can bought online, at the mall or even through the online Apple store. The drone is controlled with an iPhone and operates over WiFi, recording what happens below. And then there are the $20,000-and-above drones, such as the Falcon UAV that police departments are purchasing. They can fly for hours at a time and coordinate with surveillance systems on the ground.

Military contractor Ken Druce has a loftier goal — starting a company that helps farmers map their fields for fertilization.

Good, the wedding-ring deliveryman, wants to use drones to make commercials and movies, but he knows the nascent personal-drone community has more work to do to make people comfortable with the technology.

“There are people outside the White House probably right now protesting drones,” he said. “But we’re trying to do really positive stuff with these things.