David Hoppe

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:: Droned in Garfield Park

They’re here

by David Hoppe

On a Saturday night not long ago, my wife, some friends and I were sitting in Garfield Park, enjoying NoExit Performance’s production of the play, “Our Experiences During the First Days of Alligators.” The title of this play is also its premise: without warning, alligators start turning up all over a Midwestern town. The story concerns how a small group of characters adapt to these new, rather menacing, arrivals.

The play was about halfway through when we became aware of a dull buzzing overhead. It sounded like a swarm of angry bees. Just about everyone in the audience looked up to see what it was — a flying object, above treetop height, with four distinct corners, each tipped with red or green lights.

The thing flew by, then it came back. It seemed to hover briefly, and finally disappeared. A friend sitting behind us leaned forward and gave voice to what all of us were thinking. “It’s a drone,” he whispered.

To their credit, none of the actors acknowledged the thing. The play proceeded without interruption. But during a Q&A session afterward, it became clear almost everyone there had been aware of this new arrival in our midst. It seemed all of us were struck by having experienced something for the first time: a drone.

Drones, of course, have been all over the news. Much has been made of President Obama’s reliance on the military variety; he favors them for killing terrorists. Unfortunately, a lot of innocent bystanders in Pakistan and Afghanistan have suffered the consequences of this form of robot warfare.

Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul drew attention to drones with his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style 13-hour filibuster. Paul said he was concerned about the government using drones to kill people here at home: “"That Americans could be killed in a cafe in San Francisco or in a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is an abomination…I object to people becoming so fearful they gradually give up their rights,” he said.

My wife googled drones on the Internet. Right away she found a web site called uavdronesforsale.com, where there were several drones that looked a lot like the one that buzzed us in Garfield Park. One, called the Aquacopter, a waterproof “quadcopter,” was on offer for $350. Several were equipped with cameras for still images or video.

The market for drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), has heated up since the all-but-unnoticed passage of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. This calls on the Federal Aviation Administration to integrate drones into the national airspace by September 2015. The FAA estimated there could be as many as 30,000 drones being operated by public and commercial owners in this country in less than 20 years. The FAA has granted 1,428 drone licenses to police, universities and transportation departments since 2007.

The so-called drone industry figures to generate about $82 billion in economic activity between 2015 and 2025. “We’re not darkening the sky yet, but we’re poised,” said Richard Christiansen, the vice president of aerospace engineering for a firm called Sierra Lobo, at a California conference covered by Torey Van Oot of the Sacramento Bee. One doesn’t get the impression Mr. Christiansen thinks this is a bad thing.

Businesses see drones as an easy way to help them to do everything from assessing real estate to delivering packages.

And as with all new forms of technology, drone boosters see nothing but blue skies for their inventions. “There are smart people out there who when we put the technology in their hands, they’re going to be able to think of great ways to use it that will save lives and protect property,” said an optimistic woman named Kristen Helsel, who works for a company called AeroVironment.

Jason Goldman, identified by Van Oot as a recent grad from Pepperdine University and a drone hobbyist, enthused: “We’re here now and we’re ready. I say let us fly.”

The problem with flying, though, is that it means flying over something — like your backyard — or someone — like you.

During Indiana’s latest legislative session, Sen. Jim Tomes, of Wadesville, introduced a bill aimed at banning drone activity in Indiana. Tomes said he was worried about peoples’ privacy and safety being compromised; he was also concerned about potential costs to taxpayers. His bill died in committee and the Senate approved a resolution for further study.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, legislation dealing with drones has been proposed in 41 states, and enacted in four, including Florida, Montana, Idaho and Virginia. The ACLU urges folks to call on their legislators to support privacy-protective drones legislation.

Drones are just the latest version of a very old human story having to do with our penchant for falling in love with new technologies and the unintended consequences that shape the ways we live forever afterward. Booth Tarkington wrote about this in his novel, The Magnificent Ambersons. He told the story of how an Indianapolis family’s life was flipped when the automobile made the carriage trade obsolete. In fact, he was writing about us all.

That was a Tarkington moment we had in Garfield Park. We were there to see a play; that drone is what many of us may remember.