Neighbors worry over privacy after report of drone following kids in Eagle River

A man operating his high-tech, remote-controlled quadcopter -- more commonly known as a drone -- caused a stir among residents of one Eagle River neighborhood earlier this week. Anchorage police were called to the area Tuesday after residents complained that a drone was following children home from a nearby school, but officers found no laws had been broken.

The incident has highlighted both the growing popularity of private drone use and the possible privacy and safety concerns the devices can raise for neighbors of drone enthusiasts.

Patricia Bailey-Ruiz, who lives near Eagle River Elementary School, said she was outside her home playing with her grandchildren at about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday when she heard a buzzing noise overhead.

"It came right down to us at the height of the light poles and just hovered there," Bailey-Ruiz said. "And it was making a clicking noise and it was shifting around in the sky."

Bailey-Ruiz said that's when a neighborhood child walked by her house on his way home from school.

"I said, 'Did you see the drone?' and he said, 'Oh, yeah, he has been out for a few days and he comes home with us from school, and follows kids to their houses,' " Bailey-Ruiz said. "And that's when I called Anchorage police."

A group of angry residents a few blocks away told officers where the drone operator lives.

Police said the man in the house told them that he was practicing flying his drone for an upcoming business venture. Officers told the man to stop flying his drone near the school or children and to respect people's privacy. But there was little else they could do.

"There is no state or local law for the misuse of drones," said APD spokeswoman Anita Shell. "Can we prove anything illegal has been done? No."

For three years, the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Legislative Task Force, a group made up of lawmakers and Federal Aviation Administration and state officials, has been considering how to craft laws that would regulate the private use of drones in Alaska. So far, no bill has been drafted because the group is waiting for federal regulators to weigh in on the issue. The only current state regulations addressing drones are bans against using them for hunting or to spot animals in preparation for a hunt.

The FAA regulates all aerial vehicles, including drones. Drone operation is currently banned for commercial purposes with some exceptions for closed movie sets and experimental programs -- like the one at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

But there are few regulations for private drone use. Current guidelines, written in 1981 to cover the use of model and remote-controlled aircraft, suggest that operators fly at a safe height and away from crowds or airports.

Generally, remote-controlled aerial devices, including drones, are not allowed within 5 miles of airports and must not fly above 400 feet.

The FAA said it was working on clear rules for civilian drone use that could be finished by the end of this year.

FAA spokesperson Allen Kenitzer said the agency is investigating the Eagle River drone incident.

The man flying the drone was not identified by Anchorage police because he had broken no laws. After being contacted by Alaska Dispatch News on Wednesday, the man agreed to show reporters how the drone worked and flew it for about five minutes before accidentally crashing the $3,400 device, breaking a propeller and damaging its landing gear.

The drone operator asked not to be identified for this story because he said he was worried about escalating neighborhood tensions. He claims other drones operate in the area and denies that he has ever followed children or flown low enough to look into people's homes with his drone's camera. The man said he is considering painting his drone a bright, noticeable color so that it is easily identifiable and distinguishable from other drones. He also told Alaska Dispatch News that he would no longer fly his drone while children were walking home from school.

The man said he bought the drone -- a DJI Inspire quadcopter -- online because he used to fly drones for the military and wanted to see what civilian models could do.

The FAA estimates there could be as many as 7,500 civilian drone users within the next four years. Highly publicized drone crashes -- including at the White House -- and near misses with aircraft have heightened the need for a clear set of rules for drones. But for now, local police are on their own when it comes to deciding if any privacy laws have been broken by drone use in neighborhoods and around people.

"The technology is moving faster than the laws, basically," Shell said.

In the absence of legal restrictions about drone use, it remains up to the operator to make sure his device is being flown safely and ethically.

"You can't regulate stupid," said Alaska Zoo photographer and drone enthusiast John Gomes.

Gomes said he only flies his device away from people, usually in parks. Gomes said ethical operators always keep their drones in sight, never relying on the onboard cameras as the only means to see where they are.

Gomes said most drones don't have cameras with great resolution and that it would be difficult to use them to spy on people. He added that it's always a good idea to get a property owner's permission before flying over their land. Gomes said drones get a bad reputation because of people's fears and incidents like the one in Eagle River.

Still, Gomes claimed the aircraft are fun to fly and can be useful for photography and entertainment, if operated ethically.

Sean Doogan

Sean Doogan is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News.