After more than 40 years of development and extensive use by the military, the United States has set the date when the nation’s airspace will be open for drones. Should you be scared?
Short answer: No, but like any new technology, unmanned aerial vehicles have their dark side.
Legislation passed by Congress last week gives the Federal Aviation Administration until Sept. 30, 2015, to open the nation’s skies to drones.
The first step comes in 90 days when police, firefighters and other civilian first-response agencies can start flying UAVs weighing no more than 4.4 pounds, provided they meet still-to-be-determined requirements, such as having an operator on the ground within line-of-sight of the drone and flying it at least 400 feet above ground.
Currently, UAVs can only fly in restricted airspace zones controlled by the U.S. military.
By May 2013, the next class of drones, those weighing less than 55 pounds, can fly the nation’s skies, according to provisions of the FAA bill passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama last week.
The deadline for full integration of drones into U.S. airspace is Sept. 30, 2015.
Rules about where and when drones can fly and who can operate them are still under development. And there are still technical hurdles, such as setting up the bandwidth for secure UAV radio communications and refining collision avoidance systems, said NASA program manager Chuck Johnson of the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, Calif.
But the most pressing issues are privacy concerns and public perceptions.
“Right now, under current U.S. laws there are very few restrictions on our ability to take pictures or videos of individuals outside,” Harley Geiger, a policy attorney with the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C., told Discovery News.
“Some of the privacy issues that we see with drones are very different than the sort of surveillance that can be conducted with a helicopter. Drones can quietly watch an entire town without refueling. It can conduct a pervasive and secret surveillance that helicopters cannot match,” Geiger said.
“You can’t avoid it if you’re outside unless you take cover. People don’t want to be on YouTube whenever they go outside,” he added.
That’s not to say that governments, companies and individuals shouldn’t use drones.
“We’re not standing in the way of drone technology. We are saying that there needs to be privacy and transparency rules for its use. Otherwise the American people are going to enter a rather dark period in terms of physical surveillance,” Geiger said.
That could include, for example, having drone operators’ licenses and mission information publicly available online.
Gretchen West, executive vice president with Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International trade group, says drones will have very specific missions, not widespread surveillance.
“It doesn’t mean these aircraft are flying throughout the nation’s airspace. They’ll be used for law enforcement, to monitor traffic, for search and rescue and to track suspects,” she said.
On the commercial side, drones have a huge benefit for the oil and gas industry, agriculture, environmental monitoring and disaster surveillance, she added.
“It’s not meant to sit over someone’s house and take video,” West told Discovery News.
“The new regulations open up the airspace a little bit so we can start collecting more data,” she said. “Because they’ve been regulated so heavily by the FAA and the military, there’s not a lot of information for the FAA to get to make the regulations.”