March 01, 2016

iWitness: Lights, Cameras, Drones!

Overblown fears about drones and privacy risk scuttling our time-tested American notions of openness.

Charles D. Tobin

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I wonder if photographer Trappy Pirker knew, when he launched his drone above the grounds of the University of Virginia, that he was about to ignite the policy debate now playing out in the courts, on Capitol Hill, and in federal regulatory agencies.

What he did was certainly cool. And on the cutting edge. But as with the advent of all new technology, not everyone welcomes life on the edge. Unfortunately, cool sometimes just frightens folks— especially folks in the government, the least cool and most easily frightened institution we have.

A year earlier, Pirker had flown a drone around the Statue of Liberty’s crown, creating unique and beautiful images that earned him a cult-like following in the photography community. The video also put him squarely on the radar of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

So in 2011, when Pirker strapped a GoPro camera to a RiteWingRC Zephyr II model glider and buzzed the University of Virginia, the FAA was watching. After the video went viral on his YouTube channel—and despite the fact that he had notified the university and the nearby airport of his flight plan in advance—the FAA slapped Pirker with a $10,000 fine.

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