The Federal Aviation Administration is moving forward with a plan to integrate thousands of unmanned aircraft into U.S. airspace.
On Thursday, the Federal Aviation Administration outlined for the first time how it plans to implement the widespread use of civilian-owned drones “safely and efficiently” into the National Airspace System by 2015.
In a report, titled “Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System Roadmap,” the FAA said that drones have been used in U.S. airspace on a limited basis since the early 1990s, and attempted to address concerns that drones impede on a person’s privacy.
The push to legalize drones for civilian use such as agricultural purposes, law enforcement, weather forecasting and tracking wildlife has largely been part of a lobbying effort made by the Aerospace Industries Association, an industry trade group.
During an aerospace news conference on Thursday, FAA administrator Michael Huerta said that within the next five years he expects about 7,500 small unmanned aerial vehicles in U.S. airspace. By 2025 there may be more than 30,000 drones in American skies, which some government studies estimate will likely correspond with the creation of some 100,000 jobs.
Do privacy concerns outweigh benefits?
“Until recently UAS mainly supported public operations, such as military and border security operations,” the report says, adding that “the list of potential uses is now rapidly expanding to encompass a broad range of other activities, including aerial photography, surveying land and crops, communications and broadcast, monitoring forest fires and environmental conditions, and protecting critical infrastructures.”
But before drones become commonplace, the FAA has some work to do, including addressing concerns that drones would invade citizens’ privacy.
Before Thursday’s presentation, the Wall Street Journal published a report indicating that the FAA would likely announce that “no major privacy-protection initiatives” would be necessary before allowing the large-scale use of civilian drones.
Ben Gielow, government-relations manager and general counsel for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, agreed the U.S. doesn’t need any new privacy procedures.
Gielow’s sentiments echo the findings of a report published in October from the Department of Homeland Security. In that report, officials acknowledged concerns about drones’ ability to invade a person’s privacy since they are largely undetectable, but the report concluded that all drones comply with existing privacy laws and lack the ability to “see through walls” or capture identifiable images of people, making the privacy issue moot.
But Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy advocacy group, disagreed, saying, “The FAA is flying into a privacy storm.”
“For the agency to ignore what seems both necessary and likely is going to stall the plan’s takeoff.”
Independent safety experts have also issued warnings against rapidly integrating drones into U.S. airspace.
Sean Cassidy, a senior safety official with the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest U.S. pilots union, mentioned at a safety conference last week that many air safety experts were still unsure of how to classify and track civilian drones.
FAA plays catch-up
According to the Wall Street Journal, the FAA is months, if not years, behind in complying with congressionally mandated reports and deadlines that would allow U.S. airspace to be opened up to remotely piloted aircraft. As a result, the FAA reportedly will select six drone test sites by the end of the year in order to ensure that the agency’s “sense-and-avoid technology” is properly functioning.
Although the test sites are “not intended to predetermine the long-term policy and regulatory framework under which UAS would operate,” the FAA says the test sites will “help inform the dialogue.”
In contrast to efforts by privacy activists and lawmakers in several states to pass drone bans — especially for law enforcement use — there are about a dozen states fighting over the chance to be one of the states where the FAA tests out its drone program.
The test sites are expected to be announced by the end of the year; however, the federal government likely won’t decide whether to legalize or prohibit the use of drones until 2016.
In the FAA report, Huerta pledged, “The FAA is committed to the safe and efficient integration of UAS into the NAS,” and shared that safety is the agency’s top priority. He continued, “UAS integration must be accomplished without reducing existing capacity, decreasing safety, impacting current operators, or placing other airspace users or persons and property on the ground at increased risk.
“We have made great progress in accommodating public UAS operations, but challenges remain for the safe, long-term integration of both public and civil UAS in the NAS,” Huerta said.
He ended his letter by saying that the FAA “will update the specific implementation details (goals, metrics, target dates) as we learn from our current UAS operations, leverage ongoing research, and incorporate the work of our government and industry partners in all related areas.”