Thursday, November 07, 2013

Federal Aviation Administration to Map Out Drone Rules: Agency Is Expected to Say No Big Safeguards Needed, Likely Riling Privacy Advocates

The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to say Thursday that no major privacy-protection initiatives are necessary before opening U.S. airspace to civilian drones, a finding likely to stoke an outcry amid heightened concerns about the government's surveillance capabilities.

In addition to that general policy on privacy protections, industry officials familiar with details of the plan expect FAA chief Michael Huerta to disclose a multiyear regulatory road map intended to eventually pave the way for extensive commercial operations of so-called remotely piloted aerial vehicles nationwide.

The Department of Homeland Security previously adopted a similar view on privacy safeguards, but the FAA is the lead agency responsible for developing the Obama administration's comprehensive policy for nonfederal domestic uses of drones. If the FAA's position prevails, it could remove a major stumbling block for the budding industry while speeding up federal approvals for a variety of applications.

"We don't need any new [privacy] procedures," said Ben Gielow, government-relations manager and general counsel for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Pointing to the Department of Homeland Security's view on privacy policy, Mr. Gielow said he expects "that position will be echoed" in Mr. Huerta's speech Thursday before industry leaders in Washington.

An FAA spokeswoman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The expected announcement comes amid growing public concerns over the government's surveillance capabilities and bipartisan support in Washington for new privacy legislation regarding domestic drones.

"The FAA is flying into a privacy storm," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy-advocacy group. "For the agency to ignore what seems both necessary and likely is going to stall" the plan's takeoff.

Outside safety experts have been equally cautious about endorsing rapid integration of drones into U.S. airspace. Sean Cassidy, a senior safety official with the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest U.S. pilots union, told a safety conference last week that experts are still struggling "with the challenge of even understanding how we are going to classify these things."

Mr. Cassidy predicted a slow rollout of commercial drones, beginning with a relatively small number that will be examined, tested and reassessed before additional approvals are granted.

Currently, drones are effectively banned from flying outside specific federally designated areas, such as large swaths of the U.S.-Mexican border, where they are used to look for drug smugglers and those illegally sneaking into the country. Typically, other traffic is prohibited from simultaneously operating in areas where drones are flying.

By 2025, some government studies anticipate more than 30,000 drones operating over the U.S. Industry studies envision the creation of 100,000 jobs over the same period. Projected commercial uses for drones include surveillance of rails and pipelines to agricultural surveys to traffic monitoring.

A Department of Homeland Security report released last month acknowledged concerns that the agency's drones are quieter and more nimble than its manned aircraft, allowing them to be undetectable. But it concluded the unmanned operations comply with existing privacy laws, in part because the drones cannot "see through walls" or capture images in which people can be identified.

The FAA is months or years behind in complying with various congressionally mandated reports and deadlines to start opening up more airspace for remotely piloted aircraft. As a result, FAA officials have been under escalating pressure from industry and Capitol Hill to spell out more of their plans. By year-end, the FAA is expected to pick half a dozen sites across the U.S. to test drone safety and operations. Some two dozen states are competing for the opportunity.

The regulatory plan covers everything from certifying unmanned aircraft to establishing standards for data-links to training and licensing pilots and controllers who will be responsible for tracking drones from the ground. The FAA also intends to conduct a sweeping safety assessment of the potential hazards, particularly the ability of drones to detect and avoid nearby aircraft. In the past, Mr. Huerta said integrating drones must be done "in a way that doesn't reduce existing airspace capacity or impact" existing operators.

During the summer, the White House put the National Security Council in charge of an interagency committee to develop policies for domestic uses of drones by the U.S. government. The group was charged to look into cybersecurity and air-defense issues, among other areas.

Outside Washington, a growing number of state and local legislators are considering imposing restrictions on commercial and perhaps law-enforcement applications of drones.


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