In the last year, there has been increasing focus on the use of aerial drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, “UAVs”) to conduct surveillance in the United States. A few months ago, Congress approved the FAA reauthorization bill, which includes a provision to integrate the use of aerial surveillance by drones in the United States by 2015. The ACLU has released a report on this technology, “Protecting Privacy From Aerial Surveillance: Recommendations for Government Use of Drone Aircraft” (pdf). 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. A recent opinion column in the Washington Post outlined some privacy problems with the domestic use of drones.
Recently, through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Federal Aviation Administration released two lists (one and two) that detail the public and private groups that have applied to the FAA to fly drones in the United States. The lists include Certificates of Authorizations (COAs), which are issued to public groups such as local or state police departments, and Special Airworthiness Certificates (SACs), which are issued to private organizations such as drone manufacturers. EFF has created a map of drone authorizations and has a blog post on the release.
In reviewing the lists, there are a number of colleges universities, such as: Cornell University, Kansas State University, Mississippi State University, Ohio University, University of Wisconsin and Virginia Commonwealth University. There are also numerous local police agencies: Arlington Police Department; City of Houston, TX Police Department; City of North Little Rock, AR Police Department; Gadsden (Alabama) Police Department; and Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office.
Police departments are already looking at use of the drones. The Boston Herald reports that, “Police in Gadsden, Ala., used a $150,000 federal grant two years ago to buy a lightweight drone called a WASP III to help in drug investigations. But officers have yet to fly the drone, said Capt. Regina May, a department spokeswoman.” WTOP (103 FM) in Washington, D.C., interviewed Fairfax County, Va., Police Chief David Rohrer, who said: “Drones will certainly have a purpose and a reason to be in this region in the next, coming years.”
Under the law that was passed a few months ago, the FAA must write rules by May 14 on how to license police, fire department, first-responder and other public safety agencies to fly drones that weigh less than 4.4 pounds if they are: within the line of sight of the operator, less than 400 feet above the ground, flown during daylight conditions, within Class G airspace, and outside of 5 statute miles from any airport, heliport, seaplane base, spaceport, or other location with aviation activities.
There are a variety of intermediate deadlines before then, but the agency is required under the new law to integrate unmanned aerial vehicles operated by non-government users — individuals or corporations — by Sept. 30, 2015. The final rule to implement the comprehensive agency plan for integrating government and non-government drones into U.S. airspace is due on Dec. 14, 2015.