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Drones over America: public safety benefit or 'creepy' privacy threat?

Drones are not just for tracking terrorists abroad. Some 327 are authorized to fly in US airspace – most for military training. But as their numbers grow, so is domestic scrutiny.

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Seattle Police Officer Jim Britt demonstrated an unmanned aerial vehicle during a public meeting. Seattle later decided to drop its drone program.

Colin Diltz/The Seattle Times/AP/File

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Shortly after Alan Frazier became a part-time deputy sheriff in Grand Forks, N.D., the police began looking into the possibility of buying some aircraft to boost their law enforcement capabilities. They wanted some help doing things like finding missing people or carrying out rescues in a region dotted by farmsteads threatened by flooding that wipes out access to roads.

Buying a turbine engine helicopter, however, would cost $25 million, a prohibitive price tag even with 11 law enforcement agencies – eight from North Dakota and three in western Minnesota – willing to share the cost.

So Mr. Frazier, also an assistant professor of aviation at the University of North Dakota (UND), began looking into unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as a possible alternative.

But what appears, on one level, to be a sensible, practical, and affordable solution for local law enforcement – the price tag for a small UAV is about the cost of a tricked-out new police cruiser at $50,000 – has run smack into public concerns about yet another high-tech invasion of privacy and the popular image of drones as stealthy weapons used against terrorists.

Nonetheless, the technology's potential benefits in pursuing a raft of public safety measures at relatively low cost have enormous appeal for law enforcement agencies across the country, since President Obama signed a bill last year directing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to further open US airspace to drones for both public and private use.

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