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Hovering Over You: the Case for Drones

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A drone showed up in my backyard one afternoon a while ago.

Gray-colored, with "Navy" emblazoned on its fuselage, it looked like a common Jet Ranger commercial chopper while it hovered over the pine trees at my house in southern Chesterfield County. It isn't unusual to see military aircraft because Fort Pickett is about 20 miles away. But I was startled because this helicopter had no cockpit.

The War on Terror has made drones a controversial, ethical issue. National media are filled with questions about their use.

Just the other week, focus landed on Charlottesville, when its City Council passed a resolution banning weapons used on drones and limiting the use of information collected by drones in criminal trials. The city became the first in the country to pass such a measure, framing it as an issue of civil liberties.

The resolution also gave its support to a movement afoot at the Virginia General Assembly that would place a two-year moratorium on the use of drones by law enforcement agencies, except for search and rescue purposes.

Is there reason for such a fuss? Small, hand-launched drones are available for police who could use them to spot fields of marijuana or other contraband. Their use to locate dangerous criminals could save lives. If a convicted killer escapes from prison or if police are trying to isolate a mass shooter involved in a Sandy Hook or Virginia Tech-style massacre, drones could be of help.

 If passed, Virginia would be the first state in the country to ban drones in such a way. Some people believe that drones could be a serious infringement on privacy. "We are at a point where all of us are about to sacrifice our privacy to this new technology," Claire Gastañaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Washington Post.

When my backyard drone suddenly sped off after hovering, I naturally had the paranoid idea that I might be a target for something. But then I grew up during the Cold War, and, like every other American, have been the object of aerial surveillance for nearly a half a century, primarily from Soviet reconnaissance satellites and some from other nations.

In grade school in 1960s, we all used to "duck and cover" under our school desks while we waited for nuclear megatons to rain upon us from Soviet missiles. If that happened, the devastation would be unthinkable. Millions would die, not just a handful of people taken out by today's drone-launched rockets.

With that perspective, the current threat seems puny.

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