But Calo and Stepanovich were divided on whether Congress should update federal privacy laws to set a national standard, or whether the responsibility should be left to state lawmakers to craft their own solutions. Several bills have been introduced in Congress that would, among other things, require warrants before drones could be used for surveillance.
Calo said he is concerned that some of the congressional legislation isn't written broadly enough to cover other types of technology, like robots that can walk up walls.
There is also virtue in allowing states to experiment with their own laws, he said. A variety of drone-related bills have been introduced this year in more than 30 state legislatures.
But Stepanovich urged Congress to pass legislation requiring police to obtain warrants for drone surveillance, with exceptions for emergency situations or when necessary to protect human life.
There is already limited civilian drone use. The FAA has granted more than two hundred permits to state and local governments, police departments, universities and others to experiment with using small drones.
Initially, most civilian drones are expected to be around the size of backpack or smaller, weighing less than 55 pounds and unable to fly higher than most birds. The U.S. military, on the other hand, uses everything from unarmed, hand-launched drones like the 2.9-pound Wasp to systems like the MQ-9 Reaper that flies at an altitude up to 50,000 feet, has a 66-foot wingspan, weighs up to 10,500 pounds and can fire Hellfire missiles and guided bombs.
"I am convinced that the domestic use of drones to conduct surveillance and collect other information will have a broad and significant impact on the everyday lives of millions of Americans going forward," said the committee's chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
"Small, quiet unmanned aircraft can easily be built or purchased online for only a few hundred dollars and equipped with high-definition video cameras while flying in areas impossible for manned aircraft to operate without being detected," Leahy said. "It is not hard to imagine the serious privacy problems that this type of technology could cause."