SAN FRANCISCO –While drones have played an increasingly prominent role in America's military and surveillance operations – at home and abroad – lesser known is the growing use of this new technology in civilian life. Some of these applications are far less sinister than one might expect.
For Jason Lam, owner of San Francisco's first personal drone shop, the aerial crafts could just be the latest and most exciting wave in the field of digital photography.
Walk down 6th Street in San Francisco, an area long blighted but fast becoming a hub of tech entrepreneurialism, and you could easily miss AeriCam. The modest exterior houses an array of remotely-operated vehicles that, as the name suggests, promise a bird's eye view for photographers.
"One day these could be something that all photographers use," says Lam, pointing to the radio controlled helicopters that line his studio, which like a lot of the other tech startups in the area has a casual, creative flare to it. A sort of tinkerer's paradise, the store is part office, part creative suite and part living space.
Soft spoken and impeccably polite, Lam moved with his family from China to the San Francisco Bay Area when he was ten years old. A lover of photography, he become a commercial fashion photographer soon after college and moved to New York. While pursuing a successful career working for companies such as Coca Cola, he picked up the hobby of flying radio-controlled helicopters and became eager to try aerial photography. Interested in mechanical gizmos, he began attaching small cell phone cameras to his flying toys to get aerial photographs.
Six years later, the 34 year old left his fashion photography career behind. He now runs AeriCam out of the San Francisco shop where he sells his inventions for $12,500 a pop. His most popular "Hexacopter" model is about 3 feet by 3 feet and takes substantial training to use.
"People seem to really need these close range, aerial shots. When I was a kid I always wanted something that could fly and film in the air so I'm sure a lot of people out there have that same fascination," says Lam.
His customers are professional photographers and videographers, mostly men in their late 20's, who see the radio-controlled "helicams" as fun tools that can add a new dimension to their work. After only three years in business, Lam has customers flying in from as far as Istanbul to get their hands on their own drone.
"There are only three or four start-ups in the country like ours that have been around for a few years. But there are probably hundreds that have very recently started because this industry is getting big."
Indeed it is. A new study shows that the worldwide market for drones will total $89 billion over the next decade, with buyers extending well beyond the military. In the past year alone, energy companies, journalists and private individuals have begun purchasing and making use of drones.
This week experts and industry insiders are gathering in Washington to share the latest advances in drone technology. The event comes as America's drone war has begun to heat up again.
After suggesting in May that he may curtail the U.S. drone program, President Obama has since launched 16 separate strikes over Pakistan and Yemen, where 12 suspected militants were killed in three separate attacks on Thursday. As Foreign Policy Magazine recently declared, "The Drone War is Back."
The CIA began using drones in the last decade in international counterterrorism operations – the agency claims their drones have killed more than 600 militants -- attacking targets in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The number of civilian casualties is unclear, though estimates put the figure at close to 150.
More recently, the use of drones in domestic surveillance programs has caused a stir among those who say the technology poses an even greater threat to Fourth Amendment and Americans' right to privacy.
As a result, domestic drone legislation has become a key focus in many states during the last year. More than 30 states have adopted or are considering bills to limit what drones can do, where they can fly and what types of data they can collect. Six states have passed bills that "require law enforcement to get a probable cause warrant before using a drone in an investigation," according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Many citizens are concerned about due process as they see local police departments purchasing and using drones.
Lam, however, is more sanguine about his work.
"Its nothing to be afraid of," he insists. For his part, Lam says his crafts don't stay in the air long enough for surveillance. "They're built for stability," he explains, the kind needed to ensure there's no camera shake to ruin a potentially winning shot.
Lam also takes a less alarmist view regarding concerns about drones more pernicious applications. "Like all knowledge, you can use it for good or bad. Instead of fearing the technology it's about regulating it and using it for the better."
Currently, there are few regulations governing the use of low altitude drones, meaning Lam's customers can fly their crafts pretty much anywhere. Still, Lam says he advises them to never fly a drone out of eyesight, and never directly above people, for safety reasons.
Lam, who as a child dreamed of flying, says he's optimistic about the industry's future, and hopes one day to help make this technology both more affordable and accessible, even for children.
"It's just a little camera. In the wrong hands I could see the danger, but for the most part it's all good."