A Kansas town has landed in the middle of controversy over unmanned drones due to privacy concerns.
Herington, population 2,500, was looking for an economic boost. City leaders thought a project to build and launch unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, was the answer.
"I got excited," City Manager Ron Strickland said. "I was really excited because we had a nice alternate use for our airport."
Herington received three small drones on loan from the Kansas National Guard four years after it applied for and received federal approval to operate them. Herington was among a growing list of governments, law enforcement agencies and schools who obtained the aircraft since the U.S. approved them for domestic use in 2005.
But before Herington could launch the flights, the Kansas National Guard took them back.
"We were contacted by the federal government indicating that these were no longer unrestricted," said Sharon Watson, a spokeswoman for the Kansas National Guard. "They now fell under the classification of restricted use."
That change came around the time the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the federal government to get a list of cities, police departments and schools that were flying drones.
"They kept that information from the public," said Trevor Timm, an attorney for the foundation. "Manned aircraft are required to release that information."
Timm believes the drones, which can fly unmanned for many hours and can spot activity on the ground from thousands of feet in the air, pose a threat to the privacy of Americans.
"They can sniff out Wi-Fi signals," he said. "They can act as a cell phone tower and get GPS info from your cell phone."
Herington city leaders said snooping on citizens was never part of their plan.
"We were going to try and promote homeland security," said Merlin Oswald, manager of the Herington Regional Airport. "And use the drones for emergency relief to drop supplies in unreachable areas. Or as a cell tower if storms knock out power."
"I would hate to be watched 24/7," added Strickland. "I think there's a right to privacy."
But Timm said the foundation has to take a hard line on this issue because the FAA doesn't monitor how domestic drones are used.
"We want to make sure the privacy of Americans are protected," Timm said.
Herington still has the authorization to fly drones, and there is talk of getting another aircraft from Canada. City leaders are hoping to move forward with the manufacturing component and collaborate with Kansas State University, which offers a research program on drones.
Copyright 2012 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.
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