The burgeoning interest in flying drones over U.S. cities has the Federal Aviation Administration searching for places to test rules that could govern the domestic use of unmanned aircraft.
For years, the U.S. military has been using the drones in Iraq and Afghanistan to monitor enemy troop movements and even take out enemy combatants with missile strikes. But the unmanned aircraft also are increasingly being flown in the U.S. for border patrol, disaster relief, search and rescue, training and law enforcement, even as critics voice opposition to their use, citing privacy concerns.
Officials are working to integrate the aircraft into the nation’s airspace as quickly and efficiently as possible. However, they must balance issues such as safety, promoting economic growth and protecting those privacy interests, said FAA spokesman Les Dorr.
That means careful planning and management of their integration into the world’s most complex airspace system to keep people, aircraft and property safe, he said in an email last month.
FAA drone rules will govern such things as certification of aircraft, training and medical checks for operators, allocation of bandwidth for command and control, and standards for automated systems that unmanned aircraft use to sense danger and avoid collisions, Dorr said.
“The FAA’s primary mission is, and will continue to be, safety,” he said.
The FAA is coordinating its efforts with the Department of Defense, NASA and Congress, as well as public agencies.
Currently, the FAA has issued only a few hundred certificates for drone operators, but it forecasts that as many as 7,500 unmanned aircraft could be flying over the U.S. within five years, Dorr said.
To ensure the drones are being used properly, the FAA plans to test the aircraft at six sites, which will be selected by the end of the year. Since Feb. 14, the FAA has received 50 applications from 37 states hoping to become drone test sites.
Federal procurement laws prohibit officials from discussing the specifics of the applications, but Dorr said the sites would be evaluated based on geographic and climatic diversity, ground infrastructure, research needs, population and air traffic density.
“The combined attributes across the test sites should provide the appropriate environment and opportunities to test UAS (unmanned aerial systems), although each test site will not have to provide all attributes,” he said.
One of the California applicants, for instance, touts the remoteness of its site as a perfect place to test a remote-controlled aircraft.
“You kind of want to be in the middle of nowhere,” Eileen Shibley, who leads the effort for the Indian Wells Valley Airport District, told The Associated Press. “You don’t want to risk being close to a populated area.”
The Indian Wells site sits about 150 miles north of Los Angeles in the high desert, according to the AP report.
Other states are pooling their resources with neighbors. Ohio teamed with Indiana to increase both states’ odds, AP reported. Like California, there is budding drone activity in Ohio, most notably at the Air Force’s sensor research facility at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
The untapped civilian market also has economic implications.
“It’s the chance to get in on the ground floor of what may be the next big business,” Peter Singer, a robotics expert at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington told the AP. “The states competing hope it might make them the robotics equivalent of Detroit for automobiles in the 20th century or Silicon Valley for computers.”
But what does this drone proliferation mean to the average American citizen, asks Arizona State University engineering professor Brad Allenby.
“When you field a technology like that back into civil society, what does it do?” he said. “What if divorce lawyers get it? What if political parties use it against each other?”
Privacy advocates worry that drones will make it easier for the government to spy on citizens and that the technology could be abused.
A recent American Civil Liberties Union report on drones calls for rules to stop them from “bringing us closer to a 'surveillance society' in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the government.”
According to the ACLU, rules should require that a drone be deployed by law enforcement only with a warrant, in an emergency or when there are grounds to believe it will collect evidence relating to a crime.
However, Allenby said drones are not the only thing threatening privacy.
“With smartphones and drones, you have to assume that you have no privacy and if data mining techniques become good enough, people will be able to find out what they need to about you,” he said. “It is going to be very hard to stop.”