US airspace could be crowded with some 7,500 commercial drones within the next five years, this is part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s new roadmap unveiled on Thursday.
The announcement is the latest step toward transitioning drones from military use in the war on terrorism to collecting survey and weather data to assisting rescues and law enforcement operations.
“From advancing scientific research and responding to natural disasters to locating missing persons and helping to fight wildfires, drones can save time, save money and, most importantly, save lives,” said a statement by Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems.
“By the end of the year, we plan to choose six test sites for civil unmanned aircraft. Congress required us to do so, and we need to make sure we use these sites to obtain the best data that we can,” FF Administrator Michael Huerta said.
Michael Huerta however cautioned that there could be delays for those looking to obtain certificates to operate unmanned aircraft once regulatory guidelines are in place. He said ensuring safety in increasingly congested skies was his agency’s top priority, The Washington Post reports.
“We must fulfill those obligations in a thoughtful, careful manner that ensures safety and promotes economic growth,” he said in a speech to aerospace industry executives.
The FAA plan has also set the stage for law enforcement agencies, businesses, universities and hobbyists to begin flying drones by 2015.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems estimated that the commercial drone industry will create more than 100,000 jobs and generate more than $82 billion over the next 10 years.
The 74-page roadmap however immediately raised concerns among some privacy advocates, who say that the FAA needs to clarify how the government and private users can use video and other data from surveillance drones, and how long it can be stored. The FAA is requiring future test sites to develop privacy plans and make them available to the public. The policy also requires test site operators to disclose how data will be obtained and used.
“Make no mistake about it, privacy is an extremely important issue and it is something that the public has a significant interest and concern over and we need to recognize, as an industry, that if we are going to take full advantage of the benefits that we are talking about for these technologies, we need to be responsive to the public’s concerns about privacy,” Huerta said.
Christopher Calabrese of the American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel told The Washington Times that, while the FAA’s requirement for public disclosure of data and retention policies are needed and welcome, the safeguards do not go far enough.
“It’s crucial that, as we move forward with drone use, those procedural protections are followed by concrete restrictions on how data from drones can be used and how long it can be stored. Congress must also weigh in on areas outside of the FAA’s authority, such as use by law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security, which have the ability to use drones for invasive surveillance that must be kept in check,” Calabrese said.
“People are really worried about drone use. You see it in a huge number of state bills and laws, and I think the FAA needs to understand that if they don’t address privacy issues then drones are not going to be a useful technology,” he added. “Privacy can’t be swept under the rug”.
The ACLU has also urged Congress to support laws, introduced to the House and Senate, that would require police to obtain judicial approval before using a drone.
Under a law passed in 2012, the FAA must provide for the “safe integration” of commercial drones into domestic airspace by 2015.
If passed, this legislation would require law enforcement agencies to obtain warrants before using drones to collect surveillance data on US soil.
Twenty-four states including California, Florida, Nevada, and Arizona, have already applied to host the tests.
According to the FAA, the state governments or universities that oversee the test sites must describe their policies for privacy, data use and data retention. The document released on Thursday said drone operators must “comply with federal, state, and other laws on individual privacy protection”.
Until testing is complete, the FAA said, it will grant flight privileges to unmanned aircraft operators on a case-by-case basis.
Unmanned aircraft come in many shapes and sizes. Military drones are used for surveillance or missile strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East, while similar aircraft could be used domestically to monitor traffic conditions, weather patterns and assorted other things.
“In that airspace of the future, we will have new users,” Michael Huerta said. “We will have more commercial space launches, and we’ll have more unmanned aircraft systems. As you know, it requires significant consensus of how we can safely integrate game-changing technologies such as these, and I’m pleased to say we’ve made very solid progress. We are dedicated to moving this exciting new technology along as quickly and safely as possible.”