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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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October 18th, 2013
05:39 PM ET

Privately-owned drones rise in popularity, as FAA navigates potential risks

Drones is a loaded word that has been flying off politicians' tongues for years now. But to be clear: this story is not about the unmanned military aircraft used to strike foreign targets.

This is a story about small, privately-owned drones, equipped with cameras and technology that can, and will, change the way we live our lives.

Each month at a rural airport near Washington D.C., Tim Reuter organizes one of several nationwide groups of hobbyists and hopeful entrepreneurs dedicated to expanding drone use.

"We really believe the sky is the limit with this technology, and we really want to incentivize people to start thinking about how to apply this to real world problems using low cost drones that an individual or a community could conceivably own," said Reuter.

Unmanned, camera-toting drones can go where many aircraft and helicopters can't, more safely and much, much more cheaply.

For example, a drone that costs a few hundred dollars can be used to monitor wildlife reserves and assess damage from dangerous natural disasters.

But drones can't be commercialized, at least not yet, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

"We're allowed to do whatever we want as recreational users, but as soon as you start charging money, you need to get a license from the FAA, and there's no way to get that license as a private citizen. So right now, America is sitting on its hands, while around the world people are starting small companies that are going to turn into big companies that we're going to have to compete against," said Reuter.

While Reuter's club in Maryland has up to 600 active users who are very excited about the possibility of drones, there are some who are not so enthusiastic.

"There's going to be an issue with stalking, harassment, and other crimes using drones by individuals, and perhaps by corporations as well," Amie Stepanovich, director of the Domestic Surveillance Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center told the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing on drones in March.

At the same hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, worried how drone use would be monitored, and how the equipment would be certified.

To address justified concerns, the FAA is working under pressure from Congress to stem the tide of potential risks. The administration aims to commercialize and regulate the use of drones by September 30, 2015.

"Part of the challenge is the FAA doesn't really have the capacity to deal with this. There's a lot of people doing things illegally, so we need to get systems in place right away to make sure people do this safely," said Reuter. "We want to bring jobs and tax revenue to our communities and we're not allowed to yet, and its very frustrating."

But not every community welcomes drones

"We need to push legislatures to push privacy restrictions on drone flights," said lawyer Jennifer Lynch, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "What's to prevent all these commercial operators from sharing the vast treasure trove of data they collect with the government?"

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is a non-profit privacy rights group that sued the FAA last year, demanding to know who had applied for drone licenses.

"Drones can be equipped with cameras, infrared technology, with the ability to intercept communications, to monitor our cell phones, monitor our location, but I think drones also present new issues. And those include the fact that drones are able to fly at altitudes that make them impossible to see. They're able to gather much more information on us than has been possible before," said Lynch.

There are also simple safety concerns. A drone capturing images of a bull race in Virginia this summer suddenly fell from the sky, injuring at least four people in the stands.

One month later, Texas became the first state to pass legislation punishing improper drones use. Now, flying a private craft without permission from authorities will come with a $500 fine. That's more than $200 more than the most popular recreational drone model.

"It is a real challenge, but I don't think the answer is to shut down access to all of this completely until we can come up with a perfect answer," said Reuter.

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