The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy watchdog group, obtained the drone license applications through Freedom of Information Act requests.
An application from the Gadsden Police Department in Alabama indicated authorities wanted to use drones for secret surveillance of drug transactions. Georgia Tech police requested permission to fly drones for "regular air patrol" and to put "eyes on the target and crisis areas" during special events like football games. That application was denied.
Some law enforcement agencies withheld the intended use. The application filed by Texas Department of Public Safety said the "mission was law enforcement sensitive."
That secrecy concerns privacy advocates. "Our ultimate concern is that Americans' privacy protections are safeguarded," said Chad Brock of the ACLU of Georgia.
Brock said he's worried police could use the technology to track people unlawfully and conduct surveillance of large areas and store the video.
But Mick West, a research engineer with the Georgia Tech Research Institute, said the safety benefits of drones far outweigh any privacy risks.
West and a team of researchers are developing new uses for the unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs. West said drones can be used to monitor crop health, spot biological and chemical hazards, remotely evaluate storm strength and find missing people.
"That's the reason I'm passionate. They are changing the way we live," said West. "The FAA and our legal system has rules against spying or prying or anything that would be illegal."
State lawmakers introduced two bills earlier this year that would regulate and provide oversight for drone use in Georgia. It is expected both will be debated next year.
Brock said he supports legislation that would require police obtain warrants before flying drones and ban the use of weaponized drones within the country.
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