Lawmakers in Congress and more than a dozen states are seeking to shield Americans from spying by domestic drones as the Federal Aviation Administration works to integrate unmanned aircraft into the U.S. aviation system.
Drone boosters say that, after years of military use in Iraq and Afghanistan, unmanned aircraft can be deployed in the U.S. to monitor crops, film Hollywood movies and aid law enforcement. The prospect for increased police and private drone flights is leading to federal and state proposals to restrict information gathering or require privacy disclosures.
“It’s aerial surveillance on steroids because drones are so inexpensive and they’re potentially so wide-reaching in terms of where they can look and what they can do,” said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “They represent a real new front in privacy invasion, so people are right to be worried about them.”
Lawmakers from both parties are seeking privacy safeguards for drone activities in U.S. skies. Representative Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, Representative Ted Poe, a Texas Republican, and Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, plan to reintroduce separate drone privacy measures this year. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said last month he will scrutinize police use of drones.
The privacy concerns are raising more hurdles for the emerging domestic drone industry, after Congress last year passed a law to make unmanned aircraft as routine as airplanes in U.S. skies by Sept. 30, 2015. The FAA missed its Dec. 31 target for naming six test sites for drone flights, citing in part the need to address privacy issues.
The global market for drones will grow to $11.4 billion in 2022 from $6.6 billion this year, according to Teal Group Corp. of Fairfax, Virginia, which analyzes the industry. Major drone makers include Northrop Grumman Corp., General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., and Aerovironment Inc., which make most sales to the U.S. military, said Steve Zaloga, a Teal Group analyst.
The FAA has granted a limited number of special permits to non-commercial entities including the armed forces, police departments and public universities to fly unmanned aircraft. The number of permits grew to 345 as of November, up from 146 in 2009. Last May, the agency said public safety agencies could fly drones weighing as much as 25 pounds without permits.
Under deadlines in the law, the FAA this month is to release a five-year plan for introducing civil drones into the country’s airspace.
“I am concerned by the growing use of drones by federal and local authorities to spy on Americans here at home,” Leahy said Jan. 16 in Washington. “This vast, emerging technology is cheap, but just because it’s available doesn’t mean it helps us.”
Markey’s bill last year required drone operators to detail their plans for collecting and using data, and required law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant for surveillance, with exceptions such as imminent danger to life or terrorist attacks. Paul’s bill also required a warrant for the federal government to gather evidence, with similar exceptions.
The Obama administration’s use of drone strikes by the military outside the U.S. became a focus of last week’s Senate confirmation hearing of John Brennan, nominated to be the new chief of the Central Intelligence Agency. Senators challenged Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser, about the legal foundation for drone strikes aimed at U.S. citizens linked to al-Qaeda.
Lawmakers in 14 states including Florida, Texas and Oregon have put forward bills limiting surveillance by drones, according to the ACLU. The city council of Charlottesville, Virginia, passed a resolution last week pledging not to use drones, and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn announced the city’s police department would end its drone program.
Drones can be equipped with technology such as high-powered cameras and thermal-imaging devices, and may raise issues related to freedom of the press, privacy, trespassing, and other areas of the law, according to a Jan. 30 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
In making plans for domestic drones, the FAA’s primary focus should be safety, Representative Howard McKeon, founder of the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, and 15 other House members said in Feb. 8 letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The lawmakers said members of Congress and other government agencies are addressing privacy issues, and that FAA delays related to non-safety issues could have an “adverse impact” on meeting its September 2015 deadline for integrating drones into U.S. airspace.
Drones could let farmers monitor crops for soil moisture and insects, take aerial photographs of houses for real estate agents, or allow energy companies to monitor hundreds of miles of remote pipelines, said Ben Gielow, government relations manager at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an Arlington, Virginia-based trade group.
The FAA should stick to its safety mission, and existing laws and federal policies should govern data collection by drones, Gielow said.
Unmanned aircraft probably won’t be able to safely operate in flight paths occupied by planes and helicopters until after September 2015, according to Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association union.
Drone operators need to demonstrate that they can sense and steer clear of other aircraft and react to commands from air traffic controllers before being allowed free access to the skies, Moak said last year.
The Motion Picture Association of America, which represents studios including Walt Disney Co. and Viacom Inc.’s Paramount Pictures, is lobbying the FAA on drones as it seeks permission to use the unmanned vehicles for film production, said Howard Gantman, a spokesman.
Movie productions often want use a remote-controlled toy-sized helicopter with a high-definition camera to get aerial shots or film someone climbing a mountain, and are only able to do so outside the U.S., Gantman said.
“We’re always looking for ways in which we can keep the productions here instead of going overseas,” he said.