As drone regulation legislation works its way through Congress and the 30 (so far) state legislatures where it has been introduced, one question that we hear a lot these days is, “we’ve had police helicopters for a long time, what’s so different about drones?”
For one thing, police helicopters do raise privacy issues. Because of the expense of using manned police aircraft, privacy invasions have not risen to the level that legislators have felt compelled to address them, but incidents do happen. In 2005, for example, a police helicopter supposedly monitoring a street protest in New York City instead trained its infrared camera for a prolonged period on a couple making love on a pitch-black rooftop patio. Any police helicopter that followed a citizen around town for no reason, or hovered over the backyard of innocent homeowners whose daughter was sunbathing with her friends, would probably draw complaints. With drones, scenarios like those are bound to happen much more frequently. And that’s because there are some critical distinctions between manned and unmanned aircraft.