FAA Seeks Operators for Six Domestic Drone Test Sites

By Bob Brewin

February 15, 2013

The Federal Aviation Administration is pushing forward toward widespread drone use in domestic airspace, inviting state and local governments, universities, and other public entities to submit proposals for operating six unmanned aircraft system test sites. The agency also called for public comments on the privacy impllications of drone use.

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, introduced a bill that would sharply restrict the use of drones for surveillance by law enforcement agencies unless they first obtain warrants.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood emphasized the FAA test sites will enable research and development to ensure drones operate safely in the National Airspace System, which controls and manages manned aircraft.

“Our focus is on maintaining and improving the safety and efficiency of the world's largest aviation system,” LaHood said Thursday, while announcing the solicitation. “This research will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation’s skies.”

FAA will also work to ensure drones operate in “accordance with federal, state and other laws regarding an individual’s right to privacy.” The agency is seeking public comment on privacy issues through the online federal rulemaking portal and will follow up with a webinar.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta envisioned an economic boon from the widespread use of drones. Industry forecasts project government and commercial drone systems could generate $90 billion in worldwide economic activity over the next decade, He said.

Michael Toscano, president and chief executive officer of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said the test site project “is an important milestone on the path toward unlocking the potential of unmanned aircraft and creating thousands of American jobs.”

Organizations seeking FAA approval to operate the drone test sites must file detailed plans by May 6. The agency will select the winners on Sept. 27.

FAA first sought public input last March on the establishment of six test sites to be ready for remotely piloted aircraft by summer 2013 and the eventual integration of drones into domestic air space by 2015, as described in the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act. Pilots, airlines and privacy groups all bashed the widespread use of drones in their comments to the FAA.

The Airline Pilots Association International told the FAA that plans to allow widespread operation of drone aircraft has the potential to “profoundly degrade the safety of the national air space” unless the agency manages integration of the unmanned aircraft in a “responsible, comprehensive manner.”

Airlines for America, the trade group that represents the majority of U.S. passenger and cargo airlines said the agency “must ensure that UAS operations do not degrade flight safety or other operations” in the national air space.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center said FAA should examine the privacy implications inherent in the “unparalleled surveillance capabilities” of drone operations and the risk that surveillance feeds could be intercepted. The agency must weigh the ability of hackers to circumvent encryption codes within surveillance software and manipulate hardware to access surveillance data, EPIC said.

Kathryn Thomson, FAA chief counsel, said in a letter sent Thursday to Marc Rotenberg, president of EPIC, that “the FAA recognizes that increasing the use of [drones] raises privacy concerns. The agency intends to address these issues through engagement and collaboration with the public."

Poe, who introduced his legislation on Tuesday, predicted that, by 2030, “30,000 drones will be cruising American skies – looking, observing, filming, and hovering over America. We will not know where they are or what they’re looking at or what their purpose is, whether it’s permitted or not permitted, whether it’s lawful or unlawful, and we really won’t know who is flying those drones.”

Poe said his Preserving American Privacy Act “protects individual privacy and informs peace officers so they will know what they can do and what they cannot do under the law. Nobody should be able to use drones for whatever purpose they want. This bill will make it clear for what purpose law enforcement and citizens and businesses can use drones.”

He added, “There will be limits on the government use of drones so that the surveillance of individuals or their property is only permitted or conducted when there is a warrant.”

By Bob Brewin

February 15, 2013