BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- The drone flies right up to Jack Postlewaite’s face, like a curious hummingbird.
It weaves from side to side as if waving, then shoots around a race course, flipping and bobbing and apparently having a terrific time.
“I can make it do anything!” marveled 14-year-old Jack, at a drone-racing center at the Mall of America in Bloomington.
Indeed, drones can do just about anything — deliver packages, find lost children, provide a new sport for millions of fans.
Drones now hover over sporting events and concerts. Teenagers race drones in 20 Minnesota high schools. Colleges are launching drone-operation classes.
3.5 million hobby drones sold this year
Jack’s drone is one of 3.5 million hobby drones sold this year, in addition to about 2 million larger drones registered with the federal government.
The drones are good at something else — spying. Even with layers of laws that protect privacy, privacy advocates say the temptation to use drones for spying may be too much to resist.
Regardless of laws, privacy watchdogs say drones can be used to identify and intimidate demonstrators. And even though it’s illegal, anyone with $40 can buy a drone and spend evenings peeking into windows around the neighborhood.
“The powers of the state are multiplied exponentially by this technology,” said Chris Weyland, co-chair of Restore the Fourth, a privacy advocacy nonprofit. “I don’t know if we are ready to live in a world where the local sheriff has the same technology as Iran, Iraq or the NSA.”
Drone popularity is increasing with more advances in technology. The smallest drone today is the size of a deck of cards, according to Logan Noess, owner of Vertex Unmanned Solutions. It’s the DGI Maverick Mini, popular with drone-racers.
The biggest drone? Several models can locate a drowning person in a lake and lift them to safety — with a capacity of up to 500 pounds.
Drones can be equipped with thermal imaging, useful when counting deer or finding a lost hunter in the dark.
“The growth is absolutely crazy,” said Aaron Sykes, organizer of the Minnesota Autonomous Vehicles Meetup, a 1,000-member nonprofit. Sykes said drones are at a tipping point. Drone training entering into colleges and vocational schools.
“If you are into construction, you will use drones. If you have an ag degree, you will survey your fields with drones,” said Sykes.
He speaks, with admiration, of a high school sport in California — underwater drone competition.
“This is not a dream any more. Drones are being used everywhere,” said Sykes.
A boost during pandemic
Drones got a boost from the COVID-19 epidemic.
“Drone-racing is the only high school sport that did not cancel,” said Marty Wetherall, co-owner of drone center RdyTechGo at the mall, and organizer of the 12-state Youth Drone Sports Championships.
Last year, as soccer and basketball games withered away, drone-racing emerged as a socially-distant sport.
Wetherall’s 2-year-old program now includes high schools in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Eagan, Apple Valley and Blaine.
Players can meet at RdyTechGo for in-person competition. Or they can build standardized race courses in their homes, and compete online with other racers who have built their own race courses.
“Last night, we had a race between a woman in Pennsylvania, one in Sacramento and one in Apple Valley,” said Wetherall in April.
Increase by law enforcement
The Atlas of Surveillance tallies 38 sheriff and police departments in Minnesota using drones — though not in St. Paul or Minneapolis.
They are equipped with spotlights and speakers, useful when searching for lost people. Woodbury’s new $39,000 drone can fly 52 mph and stay aloft for 55 minutes.
Police are finding the drones indispensable — as a cheaper, faster alternative to helicopters. The Minnesota State Patrol uses its drones for crash investigations.
In Woodbury, a drone purchased in March will be used for finding lost people, directing operations during fires and natural disasters, and investigating crimes and crashes.
It will not be used for spying on ordinary citizens, said police Cmdr. John Altman.
He said the drones can’t be used on the inside of any building. There will be no random patrols — police must be looking for a specific event or a crime when they use them.
Altman said the drones are less invasive than Google Street View, which creates panoramic shots from public streets taken from eye-level.
Drones can be used to spot criminals — for example, people starting fires during an otherwise peaceful protest.
That’s when privacy advocates start to get concerned. To them, the capability for picking faces out of a crowd is an intimidation tactic. People who don’t want to be photographed by police – whether or not they are criminals – may not be as likely to protest publicly.
Of course, drones do the same thing that helicopters do – photograph from the air. They do the same thing as a hand-held camera that police might use to photograph a crowd.
But to Restore the Fourth’s Weyland, that’s like comparing a kitchen knife to a chainsaw.
Drones paired with facial-recognition software are incredibly fast at identifying people by their faces.
In China, drones disguised as birds are used to spot racial minorities, including Muslims. China can now photograph and register 500,000 new faces a month, according to an article in the New York Times.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see how American police might use the technology to swoop over crowds and identify every single person.
“Nothing is quite as sinister as not being able to tell a private drone from a police drone,” said Weyland. “It has a chilling effect if police have that authority.”
The law is the only safeguard against drone spying, according to Ben Feist, the chief programs officer of the Minnesota branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. Feist said he doesn’t think there’s much to worry about from local police departments.
The ACLU lobbied for a bill that passed last year, limiting drone use. It requires police to get a warrant from a judge before using a drone to look into private property. It requires cities to have a written policy about drone use before they can be used.
Weyland said that a police drone is supposed to stop recording when it flies over a home. Never, he said, should a drone be used to scan an area in anticipation of a crime. The crime must be imminent or in progress, and pose a threat to public health.
How would you know if a drone was watching you?
Hobby drones may pose the same problem. There are laws protecting privacy — the same laws that prevent a peeping tom from peering into your window.
In Minnesota, there are no known cases of residents complaining about drone spying by hobbyists.Yet because the drones are faster, easier to use and almost undetectable, the potential threat is multiplied.
“If there is a guy on a ladder looking over my fence, I know what he’s doing,” said the ACLU’s Feist. But how would anyone know if a neighbor is using a drone to watch them?
That question was asked at RdyTechGo on May 13.
“Oh, I do that all the time,” shrugged one teen.
He regularly checks out the neighborhood.
“I fly drones under their decks — nothing they would care about,” he said. “But if they had a window open, I could fly into their houses.”
If you go
The National High School Drone Racing tournaments are June 5-6. To watch, or for scheduling information, visit youthdronesports.org or visit RdyTechGo at the Mall of America.