NYPD See Risks With Drones’ Popularity

NEW YORK (AP) -
Brian Wilson launches a small drone equipped with a video camera to fly over the scene of an explosion that leveled two apartment buildings in East Harlem in March. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Brian Wilson launches a small drone equipped with a video camera to fly over the scene of an explosion that leveled two apartment buildings in East Harlem in March. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

One private drone crash-landed in midtown Manhattan. Another caused alarm by hovering over Times Square amid tight security during a major sports event. Most recently, authorities say, another had a close brush with a police helicopter near the George Washington Bridge.

Even though it’s illegal to fly the devices just about anywhere in New York City without permission, the incidents and breathtaking videos of Manhattan’s steel-and-glass canyons and sweeping skyline photos suggest that the restrictions are being widely flouted.

Police are concerned that the increasing popularity of drones in such a tightly packed metropolis could carry significant risks, even becoming a potential tool for terrorists to conduct surveillance or carry out attacks.

“So far, we haven’t seen anything sinister with this,” said John Miller, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of counterterrorism. But, he added, “People with enough money and time on their hands are going to buy them and see what they can do with them.”

Drone buffs say the futuristic doomsday scenarios are far-fetched.

“A motor vehicle or a bicycle could just as easily be used to do something nefarious,” said Steve Cohen, a professional photographer who owns a small fleet of drones and organizes meetings for enthusiasts.

Sales appeared brisk on a recent Wednesday at B&H Photo Video in midtown Manhattan, where models include palm-size mini-helicopters that sell for less than $100, four-rotor models selling for about $1,300 and eight-bladed “octocopters” that go for more than $6,000. All can be equipped with high-definition video cameras, and some models allow the pilots to see the footage live from the ground.

B&H wouldn’t talk about its sales figures, but salesman Fred Hoffman “guesstimates” that about one in 10 people who come in to his consumer video department are looking for drone cameras.

Federal Aviation Administration rules permit people to fly unmanned aircraft for recreation at altitudes up to 400 feet as long as pilots keep their aircraft within sight. The agency is working on regulations regarding commercial flights, which are generally banned under current rules.

Cohen’s group discourages drone pilots from flying in urban settings to avoid putting people or property at risk. Most drone owners are tech junkies who fly the aircraft for fun at low altitudes in remote areas on private property, or for film or other commercial projects that operate with permits.

“There’s going to be people who do stupid things,” he said, “but most of us are very smart and responsible.”