With drones already being used for a number of applications — including emergency management — and numerous companies testing their transformative ideas for this emerging technology, the commercial drone industry is readyto take off. However, the lack of regulations for drones is having an enormous economic impact.
The UAV trade association said every year the integration of drones into the nation’s air space is delayed, the US loses more than $10 billion in potential economic impact.
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform held a hearing last week to examine the economic impact and privacy and safety concerns associated with the proliferation of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), more commonly referred to as drones.
“Some experts believe the use of drones could create more than 100,000 jobs and $482 million in tax revenue for the United States by 2020,” said committee chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) in his opening statement. “The future is indeed bright for this emerging technology—the question is whether the future is going to take place here or elsewhere.”
On February 15, 2015 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposed a framework of regulations that would pave the way for widespread commercial use of small UAS—drones weighing under 55 pounds. The proposal laid out a number of safety requirements, including restrictions allowing operation of drones only within the visual line-of-sight of the operator and during daylight-hours. In addition, small UAS cannot exceed a maximum altitude of 500 feet above ground level or operate at airspeeds above 100 mph.
Until the FAA develops a final rule, the agency established an interim policy for certain UAS operators who obtain exemptions. Under the interim policy, the FAA will grant a Certificate of Waiver of Authorization for flights at or below 200 feet to any UAS operator with this exemption for aircraft and operations that meet the other criteria set forth in the proposed rule. The blanket 200-foot COA allows flights anywhere in the country except restricted airspace and other areas, such as major cities, where the FAA prohibits UAS operations.
“We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in announcing the proposal. “We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.”
Amid criticism the FAA is holding back the commercial industry by its slow pace in developing regulations for small UAS, FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker toldlawmakers “The rule will be in place within a year” and “Hopefully before June 17, 2016.”
Previous forecasts had anticipated rules as late as 2017. However, over the past several months, numerous private companies have put increasing pressure on the FAA to pick up the pace. Amazon, for example, is working on a technology called Prime Air, which seeks to deliver packages to customers via small UAS. Amazon’s Vice President for Global Public Policy, Paul Misener, said at the at the hearing that the FAA’s current pace “is inadequate, especially compared to the regulatory efforts in other countries.”
Moreover, while Misener agreed safety is the predominant concern, he emphasized that overly prescriptive restrictions could stifle innovation and limit the potential benefits of UAS technology. Misener believes the US should act expeditiously to develop rules for small UAS operations that would encompass highly automated flight, beyond visual line of sight.
“Categorical prohibitions (e.g., no nighttime operations, no operations beyond visual line of sight) make no sense and must be avoided,” Misener said.
In addition to the timeline for FAA regulations, concerns over privacy also dominated the hearing. Harley Geiger of the Center for Democracy and Technology asserted while UAS is a valuable technology with many positive uses that pose little threat to privacy, there isstrong potential for drones to be used for surveillance purposes that undermine privacy and civil liberties.
“Here is a nightmare scenario for civil liberties: A network of law enforcement UAS with sensors capable of identifying and tracking individuals monitors populated outdoor areas on a constant, pervasive basis for generalized public safety purposes," Geiger warned. "At the same time, commercial UAS platforms record footage of virtually anyone who steps out of her home, even if the individual remains on private property. This may seem an unlikely future to some.”
“However, few existing laws would stand in the way, and the public does not yet trust the discretion of government or the UAS industry to prevent such scenarios from approaching reality,” Geiger added.
Geiger cited two major incidents in the past year. First, the Department of Justice in 2014 used aircraft equipped with cell tower emulators to scan the identification numbers of the cell phones over which the aircraft flew. Second, in 2015, the FBI purportedly operated scores of aircraft for surveillance related to ongoing investigations, generally without court approval.
Incidents like these, as well as the perceived lack of privacy protection in law, has contributed to widespread public distrust of UAS. According to Geiger, a 2014 Pew poll found nearly two-thirds of surveyed Americans thought the proliferation of personal and commercial UAS would be negative.
“To foster broader public acceptance of UAS, the government and the industry itself should fully address civil liberties issues,” Geiger said. “We understand that most unmanned aircraft will not be equipped with sophisticated sensors and tracking systems, and it’s clear that most businesses want to be good actors. However, the public wants protections from the most troubling capabilities and uses of this technology that we’ve seen in both theaters of war and domestically.”