Aviation regulators released plans for how they will eventually allow drones to share U.S. airspace and unleash an industry that may reach $89 billion over the next 10 years.
The Federal Aviation Administration today also set rules restricting the gathering of data by drones at six test sites the agency is set to approve, in some of the first privacy restrictions on devices known as unmanned aircraft systems, according to an e-mailed release.
“The FAA is committed to safe, efficient and timely integration of UAS into our airspace,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in the release. “We are dedicated to moving this exciting new technology along as quickly and safely as possible.”
The reports are the first indication by the agency on how it plans to regulate commercial and other non-military uses of unmanned aircraft, an industry expected to reach $11.6 billion a year within a decade. Drones are now allowed in U.S. airspace on a case-by-case basis and used mostly by government agencies.
Major drone makers include Northrop Grumman Corp., General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., and Aerovironment Inc.
The FAA report was required by Congress last year as part of a package of drone-related provisions in legislation authorizing operations of the agency.
Lawmakers gave the FAA until 2015 to draft rules for flying unmanned aircraft safely in the same skies as traditional planes and helicopters. The agency is in the process of approving the drone test sites.
Test site operators will have to have a written plan for how data gathered on drones will be used and retained, according to today’s release. They must also conduct an annual review of privacy practices and allow the public to comment, the agency said.
With the exception of two approvals for use in the Arctic, there currently are no U.S. rules allowing commercial drone flights. As of Feb. 15, the agency had approved 1,014 ad hoc permits allowing government agencies and academic institutions to fly drones since 2009, according to the agency.
The FAA is scheduled to propose new rules as soon as this year that would allow commercial or government flights of small unmanned aircraft without having to obtain special permits.
Drone use is expected to climb slowly as the FAA crafts new regulations governing their use, privacy concerns are addressed and the technology matures, a report by the Massachusetts-based Volpe National Transportation Systems Center found.
The number of unmanned vehicles will grow more rapidly in coming decades and may reach 250,000 by 2035, including 175,000 in commercial service, the report projected. Most of those will be small devices, it said.
Expenditures on civilian and military drones around the world are expected to total $89 billion during the next 10 years, according to a forecast by the Teal Group Corp., a Fairfax, Virginia-based aerospace research company.
Spending on unmanned aircraft and related systems is estimated at $5.2 billion a year and will more than double to $11.6 in 10 years, according to the Teal report.
U.S. Representatives Ted Poe, a Texas Republican, and Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, in February introduced legislation that would require a warrant or court order for law enforcement use of drones. Exceptions include immediate danger of death and other emergency situations. The bill also bans law enforcement equipping drones with firearms.
“Individuals are rightfully concerned that these new eyes in the sky may threaten their privacy,” Poe said in an e-mail statement at the time. “Just because Big Brother can look into someone’s backyard doesn’t mean it should. Technology may change, but the Constitution does not.”
Groups such as the non-profit American Civil Liberties Union and the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation have said unmanned aircraft may threaten people’s privacy.
Drones lack the safety systems to enable them to operate in proximity to traditional planes and helicopters, the Government Accountability Office said in a September 2012 report.
While researchers are working on technology that would allow unmanned vehicles to automatically avoid other aircraft and each other, it is not proven yet, according to the report.
In traditional planes, a pilot either avoids other aircraft by tracking them visually or is guided by an air-traffic controller. Standards for how to create similar systems for remotely controlled craft haven’t been drafted.