Today's New York Times reports on the development of microdrones, which it characterizes as "poised to alter warfare." It describes a prototype drone called the hummingbird, which is only 4 inches long, "can fly at speeds up to 11 miles per hour, hover and perch on a windowsill."
While today drones may be altering warfare, soon they may have a similarly transformative effect on local policing. The Washington Post discussed this possibility at length in January, when it highlighted the use of drones by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Now is a good time to begin thinking about how drones should be regulated to protect privacy. While safety concerns have led the Federal Aviation Administration to place sharp limits on the ability of local law enforcement agencies to fly drones, it seems unlikely this near-total ban will last for much longer. Drones can be powerful tools for surveillance, particularly given the increasingly sophisticated nature of camera technology. Drones can be equipped with cameras that can zoom in and see far more than the human eye can see, and with cameras that can take thermal images. Now that we can no longer dismiss microdrones as the stuff of science fiction, we should work to develop guidelines on the circumstances under which local law enforcement agencies will be permitted to use this new and powerful tool.