University of Vermont senior David Bernstein is putting the finishing touches on his final project-- a "Quad-Rotor" mini-drone. The mechanical engineering major and fellow students came up with the idea as a way to make ski videos.
"We thought wouldn't it be really cool if you could have one of those things flying behind you when your skiing and get like a third-person view of you skiing," Bernstein explained.
But he says there's an abundance of other uses.
David Bernstein: There's a ton of applications for a quad-copter that could go to a specific GPS. For like news crews, rescue and surveillance.
Reporter Alexei Rubenstein: Tailing a suspect.
David Bernstein: Yeah, you could use it for that, too.
And that's what concerns privacy advocates. Thirty-four states have proposed various drone privacy bills this year, New Hampshire being the latest. That bill would prohibit drones from taking pictures over private property without the owner's permission. The Vermont ACLU's Allen Gilbert says he doesn't think Vermont is far off.
"I think they'll be overhead in Vermont within 12 months," Gilbert said. "The public has realized, wow these things can really do a lot. Could they ever be used in this country? Are they being used in this country? Even if they aren't, how will they be used in the future?"
The rapid growth of domestic drones has come about, in part, because of the abundance of cheap equipment. What was the domain of hobbyists now allows anyone to build sophisticated surveillance tools. In the case of Bernstein's quad-rotor-- for about $600. By 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to weigh in with rules for how they can be operated.
Sen. Patrick Leahy says the new technology poses a significant threat.
"I'm convinced domestic use of drones to conduct surveillance and collect other information will have a broad and significant impact on the everyday lives of millions of Americans," said Leahy, D-Vermont.
Neither the State Police nor local police departments in Vermont say they currently use the devices. And Steve McQueen, with the Vt. Association of Chiefs of Police, says he doesn't see departments doing so in the future either. Not only because of their high cost, but because they don't fit with Vermont's policing culture.
From drones to license plate readers to cellphone tracking and now facial recognition software the DMV is exploring, Gilbert says it's the confluence of these technologies that concern him.
"I'm sure some people think that paranoia might be a requirement for the job I have, but the fact is that because of the technological age we're living in, it's so much easier for information to be not only collected," Gilbert said. "It's much easier and it's much, much cheaper for information to be retained, to be stored."
As for David Bernstein, who is watching the rapid growth of domestic drones and hopes to parlay his senior project into a startup company, the future looks bright.
"I think it would be pretty easy to make a successful company in this field right now," he said.
The Vermont Law School is set to host a conference on international law and the use of drones Friday. "Reaching Critical Mass: International and U.S. Law in the Wake of Modern Exigencies," is March 22 from 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. in the Jonathan B. Chase Community Center. Click here for more information.