(The Root) — Within a decade, thousands of aerial drones could be hovering over neighborhoods across America, surveying traffic or crops, monitoring large crowds, searching for missing children and fugitives and perhaps more.
Could the "eye in the sky" deliver major advancements for public safety and a wide variety of industries, or lead to violations of privacy, abuse and overzealous policing, particularly in African-American communities?
Concerns about the potential misuse of pilotless aircraft, particularly by law enforcement, are driving debates in state legislatures and Congress as federal authorities aggressively expand the civilian market for the machines.
The Federal Aviation Administration has accelerated the licensing of unmanned aircraft based on a mandate from Congress to open U.S. airspace to commercial drone traffic by 2015. The FAA estimates that 10,000 drones could be licensed by 2020.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in March endorsed drones as equivalent to security cameras, saying, "What's the difference whether the drone is up in the air or on the building?" As an indication of his mindset, Bloomberg has also defended his police department's practice of stop and frisk, which has disproportionately ensnared black and Latino males and been criticized as a civil rights violation.
Fairly or not, public perception of drones has been influenced by the U.S. military's use of them to hunt and kill suspected terrorists in the Middle East. The drones launching in America are unarmed. But that's been no comfort to local officials and lawmakers in many states.
In Seattle, strong community opposition prompted the mayor to end a nascent police-drone program, which would have used aircraft to give an overhead view of large crime scenes, accidents, disasters and search-and-rescue operations.
Legislation was introduced in 39 states this year to regulate drones, mostly by protecting citizens from aerial spying, or unfettered surveillance by the aircraft. Virginia in February became the first state to pass a drone law. A two-year moratorium on law-enforcement use was imposed while lawmakers craft legal protections for broad drone use. Idaho followed with a law prohibiting police from using drones in criminal investigations without a warrant.
The defense of privacy rights has been the rare issue that finds conservatives and liberals on the same side. Many of the state bills are the result of alliances between the American Civil Liberties Union and Republican lawmakers.
Tea Party Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky criticized U.S. policy on drone usage, and whether the aircraft can be used against Americans, in his 13-hour filibuster. He later drew criticism for saying that he wouldn't object if a police drone killed an armed robber at a liquor store.
At a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa said that drones "constantly monitoring the activities of law-abiding citizens runs contrary to the notion of what it means to live in a free society."
In the House, Democratic Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts has introduced a bill that would require applicants for drone licenses to disclose the aircraft's operators, where it would be flown, the data to be collected and how it would be used and whether the data would be sold to third parties.
And the International Association of Chiefs of Police says that drones should be used primarily for search-and-rescue missions and that recorded images not needed for investigations should be deleted.
Corey Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., is a former national correspondent at NPR and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and other news organizations. Follow him on Twitter.