Gary Rotstein's The Morning File: Don’t fly off the handle when drones roam

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Perhaps you’re scared to look up these days, and understandably so.

It’s not just the perennial concern about being splattered by asteroids, airplane debris and bird poop that worries The Morning File.

(Though thankfully, we avoided the 3,000 pingpong balls errantly dropped by a plane onto an Idaho freeway this week. It never hurt much when a brother would fling one at us in disgust after losing a pingpong match, but we suspect that little plastic orb would have more sting if descending through the atmosphere like a meteor.)

Nor are we focused right now on our perpetual fear of being struck by lightning. There’s an estimated 1-in-700,000 chance that we’ll become a lightning victim this year, but with two people recently struck in Rocky Mountain National Park, maybe the lightning gods are already satisfied.

No, it’s drones that have us all atwitter (not that we would actually atweet about it). Recent reading in the Post-Gazette has us convinced that before long all of our friends, enemies and neighbors will be operating these flying objects that can bomb us, spy on us or worse. (Not actually sure what would be worse than bombing or spying — perhaps if someone constantly positioned a drone above us playing Miley Cyrus songs.)

One article focused on the Pittsburgh Drone Masters group flying their DJI Phantom Quadcopters “decked out with high-definition cameras and GPS capability.” They were portrayed as enthusiasts inheriting the role that once belonged to hobbyists flying model airplanes.

But can they be trusted to use their quadcopters — not to mention some future octocopter or centicopter or higher-number-prefix copter — for good instead of evil? Um, not from the perspective of the common people, according to a recent survey cited in the article:

“Of 3,007 poll respondents, 84 percent nationwide and 81 percent of Pittsburghers polled said they were concerned about drones. For them, the biggest issues were privacy, surveillance and trespassing in Pittsburgh and across the nation, followed by safety, reliability and property damage.”

An example of concern last month was a drone seen flying over PNC Park, controlled by a man on the Riverwalk nearby. Police told him to drop it, more or less, and he complied. An article noted the device could have crashed into the stands, where 37,000 people sat, or into a player on the field.

(We’re not suggesting that if the Pirates are one run down in the ninth inning against Colorado Friday night, when Ike Davis hits a popup to Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki with the bases loaded and two outs, that someone should distract Tulowitzki by buzzing him with a drone so the Pirates can win. It’s not a bad idea though.)

It would be nice to think we could go back to pre-drone days, when the sky was full of nothing but wonderful things like rainbows and puffy clouds and hot air balloons and, yes, well, since this is America, the occasional sniper occupying a vantage point that gives him a good view in all directions. But you can’t put that genie back in the bottle — although we have to allow for the possibility that today’s military technology might enable someone to do exactly that, by remote control while sitting inside a room thousands of miles away from the genie and bottle.

Hidden operators in recent years have been able to launch more than 1,600 drone strikes against military targets in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other places far from home, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Drone technology has been a great way, apparently, to get rid of foreign bad guys (and perhaps, by misfortune, an occasional not-so-bad guy) without risking American lives in doing so.

Nobody believes that’s where drone use will end. Future uses, dependent on federal regulatory approval, include such possibilities as monitoring of crime scenes; inspection of the health of farm crops; delivering transplant organs or transporting medical supplies to remote areas; and checking for pipeline leaks.

Meanwhile, what’s to stop a curious neighbor from parking one outside our window to see what we’re up to (just in case it’s something more interesting than the usual time spent scrolling through 39 movies-on-demand channels in hopes of finding one we haven’t seen that’s worth two hours of time)? We’ll have to get back to you on that in a decade or so, after these little flying objects become as ubiquitous as stink bugs.

Gary Rotstein: or 412-263-1255. Tony Norman is off today.

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