Privacy Advisor

Commercial UAV Use in U.S. Takes Next Step Forward

January 2, 2014

By Sam Pfeifle
Publications Director

While the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is regulated in various ways across the globe, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) still tightly controls their use in the U.S. Currently, only law enforcement operations and certain educational institutions, or those who’ve expressly received clearance, are allowed to use what have commonly come to be referred to as “drones.”

However, CNN reports, the FAA has approved six research sites at which it will test the best ways in which to safely, and with consideration for privacy, bring UAVs into “the heavily used U.S. airspace.” Those locations include the University of Alaska, the entire state of Nevada, the Griffiss International Airport in Rome, NY, the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and collaboration between Virginia Tech University and Rutgers University.

Congress requires that at least one of these sites be in testing mode within six months and that research be concluded by February 2017. The FAA must create rules for commercial UAV operation by 2015, and is expected to release rules for civil applications such as survey work in 2014. The research will focus on everything from the UAVs’ ability to detect and avoid other aircraft to their ability to operate if connection with an operator is lost to what privacy protocols need to be in place and what potential violations might occur.

Before drones start delivering packages, we need the FAA to deliver privacy protections for the American public. Convenience should never trump constitutional protections.
— Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA)

Those privacy concerns have already led to eight states passing laws that regulate UAV use, generally requiring law enforcement to acquire a warrant before using them for surveillance purposes, reports Reuters. Many of those laws were either drafted by or advocated for by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“You can imagine a world in which it is impossible to walk out of your house without being subjected to persistent monitoring and recording by drones,” Catherine Crump, a staff attorney with the ACLU in New York, told Reuters. “Things that might have seemed like science fiction will be here before we know it.”

Similarly, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) doesn’t believe the fact that the FAA test sites have to develop a written privacy policy will actually protect people’s privacy. “Online privacy policies don’t require that websites protect privacy,” noted Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney at the EFF.

However, the U.S. government and the states within which the test sites are located, along with the roughly 20 applicants who were turned down, see UAV use as a new economic driver, so it’s unlikely privacy concerns will derail commercial momentum.

USA Today reports, for example, on the burgeoning interest in academic study of UAV technology. One student at the Unmanned Vehicle University in Arizona put the argument this way: “I think that something a lot of people don’t understand is that when people think of UAVs, they think of drones spying on them. What they don’t realize or what they don’t understand are all the other applications.”

Plans by Amazon and Domino’s Pizza to use drones for delivery purposes have been frequently reported, and USA Today quotes the Teal Group as predicting UAVs will soon be a billion-dollar industry. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts 70,000 new jobs in the U.S. created by UAV use in commercial applications.

The New York Times has even reviewed a new $1,200 UAV-based personal photography package. It can take stills or video from a thousand feet in the air with a flying time of 20 to 25 minutes.

What will be the privacy regulations put in place for commercial operations that would like to add UAVs to their fleets? The FAA and Congress still have work to do there.

“Before drones start delivering packages,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) told USA Today, “we need the FAA to deliver privacy protections for the American public. Convenience should never trump constitutional protections.”

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