In 2001, two events occurred which shaped the military and law enforcement applications of UAVs( unmanned aerial vehicles), or more commonly called drones. The first event happened on April 1 of that year, in which a U.S. Navy EP-3A signals intelligence aircraft collided with a Chinese J-811 interceptor approximately seventy miles off the coast of Hainan Island. While the Chinese aircraft was destroyed, the EP-3A was able to land safely on Hainan Island with the crew eventually released and the plane shipped back to the U.S. in sections aboard a Russian freighter. On September 11, the World Trade Center towers were destroyed by terrorists crashing jetliners into the towers. Both situations underscored the need for an unmanned aircraft. In the case of the Hainan Island incident, a means of gathering signal intelligence without the vulnerabilities of having a crew forced down over hostile territory. In the September 11 case, a means of destroying and neutralizing the leadership of terror cells without direct military intervention.
While such aircraft have been successful in the war on terror, drones are being considered for use in domestic operations such as homeland security, disaster relief and law enforcement. Although relatively few drones are currently flown over U.S. soil, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicts that about 30,000 drones could be flown domestically within 20 years. Both members of Congress and the public have expressed concerns about privacy and other civil liberties. While ground-based law enforcement must have a search warrant to enter an individual’s residence, there is currently no such restriction for drones. This is because the airspace above a home is considered a public space. Two approaches under consideration to correct this are to obtain a search warrant detailing the specific use of the drone and the filing of a data collection sheet, stating the time, date and property to be photographed. Another aspect of this is previous court rulings allowing manned aircraft to collect evidence above a residence, in which a 1989 Supreme Court ruling allowed imagery of marijuana growing in a greenhouse taken by a helicopter. With drones getting ever smaller, nosy neighbors could pose a similar threat.
Drones are currently regulated by the FAA, which prohibits people from using them commercially and requires public institutions to apply for authorization to use them. However, all of this will change in 2015, when the agency is directed by Congress to open domestic skies to commercial drones, and to integrate the use of both manned and unmanned aircraft. Based on existing law, surveillance of an individual while in their home, using technology not in general public use, would be in violation of their rights without a search warrant. Perhaps the key factors are whether the drone was flying over a public place or private residence and was the search considered active (crime in progress) or continuous surveillance. While Congress has shown a willingness to debate the issue, much of the privacy battles may be fought at the local level, with each state developing standards for law enforcement use of drones and how to regulate the use of drones by individuals.