Police drones circling overhead, ready to help search for lost children, rescue stranded boaters and capture criminals.
Or drones equipped with lethal weapons, high-tech cameras able to see through clothing, and technology that monitors a person’s visit to religious or political events.
Those were divergent and tricky scenarios discussed at a congressional hearing on Thursday, as lawmakers contemplated a market that experts believe could grow to 10,000 unmanned aircraft in five years.
Congress has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to develop plans to integrate them into the national airspace system used by jetliners, private and military planes, helicopters and blimps by 2015.
The low cost of drones will “erode that natural limit,” allowing governments to conduct regular surveillance on people, said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
“As the number of drones rises, so, too, will the number of suspects,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat. “During the civil rights movement, would activists have left their homes if they knew” they were being monitored from cameras 30,000 feet above?” he asked.
“If we take a Laissez-faire attitude towards this, we will see an erosion of our liberties,” Johnson said.