In the last year, that has been increasing focus on the use of aerial drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, “UAVs”) to conduct surveillance in the United States. Last year, the Washington Post had an in-depth report of possible privacy problems with the domestic use of aerial drones, which are commonly used in military operations. (Be sure to take a look at the Post’s graphic on the specs, abilities and uses of different UAVs.) The ACLU released a report on this technology, “Protecting Privacy From Aerial Surveillance: Recommendations for Government Use of Drone Aircraft” (ACLU pdf; archive pdf).
Recently, the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a lawsuit against the Department of Transportation to learn more about the use of drones in the United States. And the Center for Democracy and Technology has looked into the privacy issues that can arise from commercial and domestic law enforcement use of drones.
Now, Congress has approved and sent to President Obama the FAA reauthorization bill, which includes a provision to integrate the use of aerial surveillance by drones in the United States by Sept. 30, 2015, rather than keeping the drones for their original purpose flying in combat missions. The bill says “(1) COMPREHENSIVE PLAN- Not later than 270 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Transportation, in consultation with representatives of the aviation industry, Federal agencies that employ unmanned aircraft systems technology in the national airspace system, and the unmanned aircraft systems industry, shall develop a comprehensive plan to safely integrate civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system.” Also, “Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration shall establish a program to integrate unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system at not fewer than 4 test ranges.”
The Associated Press reports on the FAA legislation:
The FAA is also required under the bill to provide military, commercial and privately-owned drones with expanded access to U.S. airspace currently reserved for manned aircraft by Sept. 30, 2015. That means permitting unmanned drones controlled by remote operators on the ground to fly in the same airspace as airliners, cargo planes, business jets and private aircraft.
Currently, the FAA restricts drone use primarily to segregated blocks of military airspace, border patrols and about 300 public agencies and their private partners. Those public agencies are mainly restricted to flying small unmanned aircraft at low altitudes away from airports and urban centers.
And USA Today has more context about the domestic use of unmanned aerial vehicles:
The drones’ appeal is they can fly anywhere it’s too dangerous or remote for people, and they cost less than piloted helicopters or planes.
In Mesa County, Colo., for example, sheriff’s deputies have negotiated a special agreement with the FAA to fly a 2-pound helicopter up to 400 feet above ground so a camera can snap pictures of crime scenes or accidents. An infrared camera helps deputies track a missing person or a suspect in an overgrown ravine. […]
Commercial pilots have raised safety concerns. Although pilots are required to spend time flying planes and are tested on their abilities to hold licenses, no similar rules exist for the controllers of remote aircraft. Likewise, the FAA doesn’t certify drones like passenger planes against engine failure or wings falling off. […]
Despite their many successful flights in Afghanistan, drones occasionally crash.
In August, for instance, an unmanned Shadow drone collided with a C-130 cargo plane. The cargo plane had to make an emergency landing at a base in eastern Afghanistan, but nobody was injured.
A drone occasionally goes awry here, too. In August 2010, the military considered shooting down a Navy Fire Scout drone that wandered close to restricted airspace near Washington, D.C., after controllers lost their link to the drone. But controllers regained contact.