Buzz over local drone use getting louder

Syria Rallies Houston

By James Pinkerton Houston Chronicle

When a small, camera-equipped drone hovered over recent demonstrations near the Galleria, the unmanned aircraft with glowing lights did more than startle some protesters.

The Aug. 31 overflight launched worries about possible government surveillance of two peaceful gatherings of groups supporting, and opposing, U.S. military intervention in Syria. And it raised safety concerns, as the unmanned aircraft flew close to vehicles.

“He had it literally right on top of cars, very low, to where it would affect their vision,” said Abeer Patel, who attended the demonstration. “It looked like a helicopter toy, and then I noticed a black camera attached to it.”

A Houston police officer asked the drone operator to quit flying the aircraft so low, Patel said.

It remains unclear who was operating the drone, and the flight appears to have violated FAA flight rules. But the buzz over drones in Houston comes at a crucial time in the future of unmanned aircraft flights in U.S. skies, as regulations are being finalized to determine who can use them, where they can be flown and what they can photograph.

On Sept.1, the Texas Privacy Act became law after Gov. Rick Perry signed legislation prohibiting drone operations over private property without the owner’s permission. The new law, which has exceptions for emergency public safety situations, has frustrated Texas law enforcement agencies who already have purchased unmanned aircraft.

Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration is hammering out final flight rules for Unmanned Aerial Systems – the agency’s name for drones ranging in size from a Boeing 737 to a model airplane – and expect to implement them next year. At the same time, U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, has filed a proposed federal law he hopes will pass later this fall that keeps government drones from filming private property not in plain view or individuals without first obtaining a court warrant.

“The goal is to protect the right of privacy of citizens in a very evolving, high-technology time,” said Poe, a former Houston state district judge who wants to make sure the constitutional protections against illegal searches are preserved. “You can’t go fly a drone and trump the Fourth Amendment.”

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