UAV eyes in the Open Sky

Do you like taking photos from your airplane? Most flyers do, even if it’s only every once in a while. You should be aware of a legislative slippery slope that’s developing.

Unmanned aircraft are currently in the crosshairs of legislators at varying levels of government. At issue is the ability of UAVs to conduct and record aerial surveillance over private property, an act which many consider a violation of personal privacy.

When we fly over our neighbor’s houses and peek into their backyards, we’re doing essentially the same thing as a UAV peering down with a camera.

Point of fact, we don’t need a camera. If we happen to see something interesting, we’ll probably store that away until after we land and then go talk about it with our friends and family. Our eyeballs are only so good. Our memories are only so good. Our circle of friends and family is only so large.

When a UAV plies the skies above us and peers down with its unblinking eyeball, it can see much more clearly because its optics far exceed even the most clear eyed of aviators. The digital memory onboard the UAV or at its control site far exceeds even the most detail-oriented of brains. Finally, the digital bird’s eye view of the sortie can be shared easily by email attachments and websites.

Quite literally, the UAV’s operator has the capability to take what the aircraft sees and share it to a level that would humble even the most prolific gossip.

I’m a staunch advocate for protecting both the freedom to fly and a person’s freedom from unwarranted search and seizure, including unlawful invasion of privacy. But before legislators tell local sheriff departments to hangar their UAVs and parents tell their RC-flying children to pull the batteries out of their photo-taking flying toys for fear of thousand dollar fines, consider what the United States of America has already agreed to with foreign governments.

Back in 1992 the United States inked its approval of the Open Skies Treaty. Open Skies allows for the family of signatory countries to overfly and record images of one another’s country and territories.

In accordance with the treaty, these sorties commenced in 2002. Among the signatories is the Russian Federation. So does it make you wince knowing that Vladimir Putin has had the authority to fly his An-30 and Tu-154 aircraft and openly photograph — by treaty, mind you — our collective backyards for the last 11 years using his Open Skies airplanes, besides his satellites?

Under the terms of the treaty, imaging systems may not have an image resolution better (smaller) than 30 centimeters, roughly one foot.Let me put this limitation in perspective.

Some small radio-controlled (RC) aircraft toys have digital video cameras mounted on them. Many of these camera systems are QVGAs; they have one-quarter of a VGA sensor’s 640 x 480 pixel resolution, or 320 x 240 pixels. For the purpose of analysis let’s use a common fixed focus lens with a focal length of 3.5 mm (found on toys of this kind and readily available on eBay), providing a field of view of 142°.

Crunching the numbers, this means that a toy aircraft with this camera can be flown at a little over 40 feet above the ground to get the same image resolution as Uncle Vlad’s Open Skies aircraft.

For the serious RC flyer there are commercially available camera systems that cost roughly $100 that have a 5.0 megapixel image sensor; using the same optics, this system provides the Open Skies authorized resolution at roughly 330 feet above the ground.

Earlier this year, some states implemented laws restricting the taking and distributing of aerial imagery obtained by using UAVs. These legislative acts appear to be knee-jerk responses to recently revealed domestic information gathering programs by national intelligence agencies.

Some of these new laws have many exceptions. Here in Texas I counted 19 general exceptions to the recently enacted Texas Privacy Act. Did Texas legislators know before passing that legislation that foreign aircraft were already flying overhead and taking photos with the blessing of our federal government? I wonder.

Is there really a difference between a manned aircraft and an unmanned aircraft flying overhead taking pictures of my backyard? From a ground level point of view there is no difference.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against the aerial imagery industry at all. Aerial photography is an excepted activity listed in 14 CFR Part 119.1, just like flight instruction and crop dusting.

What concerns me is that lawmakers may take their UAV legislation too far and try to apply it to the taking of images by manned aircraft. We need to keep watch over our legislators and their slippery-slope proposals. If manned Russian aircraft can overfly the U.S. taking pictures, we should be able to do the same.

So before any more elected representatives meander into their respective city, county, and state houses to discuss legislation and cast votes on aerial surveillance of any kind, I hope they take the time to consider international treaties and crunch the numbers before making a patchwork of the laws involving our national air space system. I vote for informed minds, common sense, and sanity.

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