Uncertainties remain as FAA integrates drones into U.S. skies; number of drones may hit 30,000 by 2020

By Josh Solomon

WASHINGTON – Thousands of unmanned aircraft systems—commonly known as drones—could be buzzing around in U.S. airspace by 2015 because of a law passed last year, raising both safety and privacy concerns among some lawmakers and advocacy groups.

Already, drones are in use counting sea lions in Alaska, monitoring drug trafficking across our borders and conducting weather and environmental research. In fact, 327 drones to date are licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly over U.S. soil.

But the FAA expects that number to increase to 30,000 by 2020, fueling what could become a $90 billion industry.

The drones used domestically bear little resemblance to the war machines making headlines for their involvement overseas; the drones being flown in the U.S. often look more like toys, and none of them carry weapons.

The 2012 law, called the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, contains a seven-page provision—known as the Drone Act—requiring the FAA to fully integrate unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System by September 2015. Additionally, the Drone Act allows law enforcement agencies, including local police forces, to buy and use unmanned aircraft for evidence gathering and surveillance.

The FAA cannot regulate the use of model drones or airplanes by hobbyists as long as they operate within certain basic limitations. Crafts must weigh less than 55 pounds, cannot fly higher than 400 feet above the ground or interfere with manned airplane traffic and, if the craft is operated within five miles of an airport, the operator must contact airport personnel.

Transitioning drones into domestic airspace has raised both safety and privacy concerns. The unmanned vehicle industry, though, believes the benefits associated with civil drone use outweigh any associated concerns.

Earlier this month, a small drone was spotted 200 feet from a passenger airliner within airspace controlled by John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. This isolated incident may be the first of many, though, as 2020 approaches.

There are provisions in the Drone Act to protect manned aviation—airplanes and helicopters—from unmanned flight. But those provisions cannot prevent an inadvertent breach of controlled airspace. Also, as the drone population grows, so do the chances of a mid-air collision between two drones.

In addition to concern over drones entering closed airspace, some are worried unmanned aircraft could have their signals interfered with or fall victim to a “spoofing” attack.

University of Texas Professor Todd Humphreys and his team developed a software-based GPS transmitter designed to deceive—spoof—a drone.

He said sophisticated drones have two wireless communication linkages: the command and control link, which allows the operator to control the aircraft, and the GPS navigation link, which keeps the craft abreast of its own position. Spoofing is when a third party targets the GPS link, through which he could manipulate the drone.

Mario Mairena, spokesman for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which lobbies on behalf of the drone industry, said systems like SAASM—Selective Availability Anti-Spoofing Modules—already exist in military craft, and he expects that technology to transition to civilian drones in the coming years.

Drones also are susceptible to communications jamming, leaving the operator unable to control the aircraft. A craft with dual linkage would then go into “lost link protocol,” which would likely navigate the vehicle, using its remaining GPS connection, to a pre-designated landing spot.

Despite the potential safety risks, the new technology has potential in a wide range of applications.

Mairena said UAS can provide assistance to first responders in search and rescue and during or after natural and man-made disasters, and they can also aid in scientific research.

Unmanned aircraft can be equipped with infrared cameras, allowing responders to identify the heat signature of a body underneath a bank of snow on a mountain or under a pile of rubble in a disaster area.

They can also be flown over land decimated by hurricanes or forest fires to help assess the damage, or through areas dangerous for humans such as a nuclear power plant immediately after a reactor leak or meltdown.

Researchers are also using drones. For example, University of Alaska Fairbanks utilizes them to monitor sea lions, because the animals retreat under water when approached by larger and louder manned craft.

Mairena also outlined potential commercial uses for unmanned aircraft. Farmers, he said, want to use UAS for crop dusting and disease detection, while oil and gas companies want to use UAS to inspect rigs and pipelines. Hollywood, too, wants to get its hands on unmanned aircraft to capture innovative camera shots and save money on manned aircraft costs.

A company called Darwin Aerospace has even developed the Burrito Bomber, a drone equipped to carry and drop a parachute-wrapped burrito which it calls “truly the world’s first airborne Mexican food delivery service.” As drone technology becomes more popular, Mairena said he expects innovators will develop other practical applications for commercial integration.

Unmanned aircraft are already finding homes in local police departments and other law enforcement agencies. The specific provision in the Drone Act authorizing law enforcement and other government-funded entities to use UAS mandates aircraft must weigh 25 pounds or less, cannot be operated higher than 400 feet above the ground or near airports and must remain within naked eyesight of the operator. This portion of the law is contributing to much of the confusion surrounding domestic drone use, and is the reason behind much of the legislation proposed in state and federal governments to restrict the use of drones.

Right now, law enforcement can use drones to survey anything that is visible to the human eye without a warrant, said Amie Stepanovich, counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

But drones can be equipped with penetrating technology like infrared thermal imaging cameras to uncover details that are not visible to the naked human eye. “It is physically impossible to hide from a drone within the typical home” if the drone is equipped properly, she said. At this point, with the technology being so new, Stepanovich said it is unclear whether such examinations will be considered “searches” under the Fourth Amendment, which would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before pursuing such an endeavor.

“There is currently no legislation that governs the collection or retention of information using drone technology,” she said. “Without comprehensive legislation or regulations to protect privacy, all individuals are at risk to having their rights to privacy violated by drone surveillance.”

Mairena disagreed. He said the industry believes the Fourth Amendment provides ample protection for citizens from invasions of privacy.

“We respect and support individuals’ rights to privacy and if anyone is misusing this technology, they should be punishable to the fullest extent of the law,” he said. “The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution has protected people from unreasonable searches and seizures for the past 225 years, and there’s no reason to think that the courts aren’t able to handle this new technology.”

Stepanovich, said, though, the “wait and see” approach to privacy is not sufficient. She cited the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, which regulated email privacy. “In no way can the ECPA be said to have hampered the Internet, but it did ensure that the new technology did not have a negative impact on individual privacy,” she said.

The concerns related to privacy go beyond just what drones can see, though. Because purchasing an unmanned aerial vehicle is much cheaper than buying a manned one—hundreds or thousands of dollars to buy as opposed to hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars—law enforcement can afford to have more of them in the sky.

American Civil Liberties Senior Policy Analyst Jay Stanley said that in American legal tradition, police don’t watch over citizens unless they have individualized suspicion a person is about to do something wrong. But, he said, drones could allow police to constantly monitor people tracking their movements and vehicles.

The unmanned vehicle lobby and the International Association of Chiefs of Police have both put forth guidelines for proper drone use. The lobby’s code of conduct includes one sentence addressing privacy that reads, “We will respect the privacy of individuals,” but provides no detail as to which uses do and do not violate an individual’s right to privacy.

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, introduced the Preserving American Privacy Act last month that would ban all drone surveillance unless a warrant was first obtained, except during emergencies, if consent is given by the subject of the surveillance and within 25 miles of the border. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol currently operates 10 Predator drones.

Virginia is considering a two-year moratorium on drone use. Thirty other states have introduced legislation to protect privacy and limit unmanned aircraft use.

Mairena said the privacy fears are overstated, noting that the only difference between unmanned and manned aircraft is the location of the pilot, of which the general public is much more accepting.

Humphreys, who calls himself a UAV proponent, said to ignore privacy concerns is bad for the industry. “My fear is that if we don’t proceed with due caution, we’re going to find ourselves confronted by a very angry public, both because of the privacy and the safety concerns,” he said.

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