Drone Tests Must Adhere to Privacy Rules, U.S. FAA Says

U.S. aviation regulators will require test facilities for unmanned aircraft to comply with federal and state privacy laws, as the government develops the first rules for operating drones in U.S. skies.

“Each site operator and its team members will be required to operate in accordance with federal, state and other laws regarding the protection of an individual’s right to privacy,” the Federal Aviation Administration said in an e-mailed statement today.

The agency is opening a contest to create six drone test sites to be run by government agencies or universities, it said in the statement. That process had been delayed while the agency considered privacy concerns, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a Nov. 1 letter to members of Congress.

Privacy worries have prompted lawmakers in Congress and more than a dozen states to seek privacy safeguards to shield Americans from spying by domestic drones.

The drone test sites were mandated in federal legislation that passed in 2011 and 2012. The legislation also said the FAA must integrate unmanned craft into the nation’s airways by 2015.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an Arlington, Virginia-based trade group, praised the FAA announcement in an e-mailed statement. States are eager to vie for the FAA’s approval to open test sites, it said in the statement.

Streamline Approvals

“Today’s announcement by the FAA is an important milestone on the path toward unlocking the potential of unmanned aircraft, and creating thousands of American jobs,” the association said in the statement.

Under current rules, civilian drone flights must receive special permission from the FAA. The agency had 345 such active permits as of Nov. 30, according to a fact sheet.

Congress directed the agency to streamline the approval process and to eventually make flights as routine as on traditional aircraft.

Representatives Ted Poe, a Texas Republican, and Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, introduced a measure yesterday 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 from using drones equipped with a firearm.

“Individuals are rightfully concerned that these new eyes in the sky may threaten their privacy,” Poe said in an e-mail. “Just because Big Brother can look into someone’s backyard doesn’t mean it should. Technology may change, but the Constitution does not.”

Global Market

Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, called the FAA’s announcement a good first step. “It’s a smart start to this to use the test phase to also test what works best to protect privacy,” he said.

The U.S. still needs to regulate drone use by law enforcement, Calabrese said.

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 currently has one drone test site at New Mexico State University, which began operations in June 2011, according to the agency.

Drone Standards

In addition to adhering to existing laws, testing facilities would have to enact privacy policies that follow guidelines known as the Fair Information Practice Principles, the FAA said in the release.

The guidelines are used by the U.S. and other nations to oversee the collection and dissemination of private information. They include protections such as notifying people when information about them is collected, according to a posting on the U.S. Federal Trade Commission website.

The test sites would also be prohibited from releasing any information beyond the technical flight data they gather, according to the FAA’s proposal to be published in the U.S. Federal Register.

The FAA also was directed by Congress to develop a five-year road map for eventually allowing unmanned aircraft full access into the skies. It has not been released.

‘Safe Integration’

The laws call on the FAA to create a set of standards for drone operations equivalent to those governing other aircraft, from pilot licensing to procedures that ensure the craft can be safely flown alongside other aircraft.

Those were designed to lay out a path to reach the next milestone, a Sept. 30, 2015, deadline for the “safe integration” of drones into the nation’s airways.

Unmanned craft probably won’t be crowding the skies by that date, Kevin Hiatt, president of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation, said in an interview.

“There are a lot of issues that will have to be carefully vetted,” Hiatt said.

He predicted the FAA will move slowly. Even after the 2015 deadline there will be many restrictions on unmanned craft, he said.

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.

(Updates with trade group comments starting in sixth paragraph.)
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