More than a year after President Obama signed legislation that will allow drones to fly over American soil, regulators are far behind schedule and proponents are eager to develop what they say could be vital to American high-tech manufacturing and other industries.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, popularly known as “drones,” have been a controversial topic since they joined the American military arsenal, but a different set of factors is at play on the issue of domestic use. As civil liberties advocates, lawmakers and Federal Aviation Administration officials voice privacy concerns, others are touting the benefits the robotic aircraft could hold for uses in a wide variety of applications such as freight shipping, agriculture and disaster management.
Vince Ambrosia, who helped develop a NASA program that used drones to monitor forest fires over the western United States, said government agencies and private companies alike have seen the value the aircraft could provide. It’s just a matter of developing a logistical, regulatory and ethical framework around their use.
“This is just going to explode,” he said. “This is going to be the next big technology breakthrough. The technology is already in place, it’s just a matter of that framework allowing the use of those platforms.”
Currently, the FAA uses a Certificate of Authorization (COA) system, through which every unmanned aircraft flown over the U.S. must be individually approved for operation (this does not apply to hobbyists using small recreational UAVs). According to a Feb. 15, 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office, the FAA has issued 1,428 Certificates of Authorization since Jan. 2007. However, FAA reports released to the Electronic Frontier Foundation under a Freedom of Information Act request yielded only a few hundred certificates, so a comprehensive list of the various drone authorizations in the U.S. remains elusive.
Chris Mailey, vice president of knowledge resources at Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a Virginia-based non-profit advocacy group, said the FAA does not yet give Certificates of Authorization for commercial drone use.
“FAA does the COA process,” he said, “and they don’t approve commercial COAs, so either you have to be a government agency or research institution in order to get a COA.”
Last year’s legislation, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, was designed to change that. The bill, signed into law Feb. 15, 2012, required officials lay out the framework for the integration of drones into the National Airspace System, which regulates all air traffic over the U.S. The first step in this process mandated that the FAA designate six test ranges in American airspace within six months of the bill signing to “test and operate unmanned aircraft systems.” By Sept. 30, 2015, according to the legislation, drones should be fully integrated into American airspace.
But more than a year later, the FAA has not named the test areas. This is due in part to a delay in the process explained by a Nov. 1, 2012 letter from acting FAA administrator Michael Huerta to Congress.
“Our target was to have the six test sites named by the end of 2012,” he wrote. “However, increasing the use of UAS [Unmanned Aerial Systems] in our airspace also raises privacy issues, and these issues will need to be addressed as unmanned aircraft are safely integrated.”
On Feb. 14, 2013, six months after the initial deadline passed, the FAA began soliciting proposals for the test sites.
The FAA release announcing the solicitation did not clarify if the administration had taken any steps to address or study privacy issues since the Nov. 1 letter, but solicited public input on the subject.
“The FAA’s proposed privacy approach emphasizes transparency, public engagement and compliance with existing law,” it reads.
Despite these delays, and having missed their first deadline, FAA officials maintain that they can make the Sept. 2015 deadline.
“The FAA expects to meet all the mandates in the 2012 reauthorization,” spokeswoman Alison Duquette said in an email. She did not address questions about the FAA’s internal deliberations about privacy concerns.
The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is scheduled to meet with the FAA next week about the issue, but the purpose of the meeting is unclear. Committee spokesman Justin Harclerode failed to respond to multiple requests for comment.
Washington isn’t the only place where privacy concerns have kept drones grounded. In Virginia, lawmakers, also citing privacy concerns, passed legislation that will ban drones over the state for two years if Gov. Bob McDonnell signs it into law. Other states are considering similar legislation.
Proponents of the unmanned vehicles, which can range from small, low-flying quadrocopters to jet-powered planes with wingspans up to 116 feet, say the privacy issue is an important one, but shouldn’t keep drones out of American skies forever.
Missy Cummings, an MIT professor working with the Navy on an unmanned rescue helicopter, says privacy issues are nothing new.
“Your neighbor has been able to look into your house with high-powered zoom lenses for a long time,” she said. Unmanned aircraft, while they are equipped with high-powered optics, aren’t able to see any more than a similarly positioned human eye.
“I work a lot with police forces,” Cummings said. “You know whatever we’ve got going on with police helicopters, do you think they’re looking maybe not where they should? Yeah, they are.”
Drones are no different, she said.
While lawmakers and regulators struggle with these issues, a growing number of agencies and businesses are preparing to capitalize on the possibilities afforded by relatively cheap, automated flight.
“The thing about the big brother state is – and that’s the drumbeat I keep trying to get out there – is our focus is on drones as spy vehicles,” Cummings said. “And all this development is going on under the radar, you know drones as cargo planes, drones as rescue helicopters.”
The oft-mentioned fear of drone use over the U.S. is that of the Orwellian surveillance state, but Mailey of AUVSI said the law enforcement market is likely to be a small slice of a much larger pie.
The real money, he said, is in agriculture. Crop dusting and other aerial spray methods are very expensive, he said, largely because manned planes and helicopters must carry a pilot in them. The added weight ups fuel costs, and the cost of hiring a trained pilot makes crop dusting with piloted vehicles expensive and often inefficient, he said.
“The big sign we see is Japan,” he said. “What’s been happening in Japan in the last 20 years has been pretty telling.”
In Japan in 2011, 95 percent of aerial spraying was done with unmanned helicopters, according to Yamaha, the manufacturer of one such vehicle. In 1995, unmanned craft did just 8 percent of Japan’s crop spraying.
Beyond agriculture, Mailey said, energy companies are interested in using drones to monitor oil and gas pipelines that are expensive and difficult to monitor on the ground. Other proposed uses include wildlife monitoring, freight transport and even taco delivery. Essentially, Mailey said, it all boils down to economics.
“In the commercial world,” he said, “return on investment is going to be the big driver [of UAV markets].” If companies can get the same result for a lower cost and less risk, they’ll jump for the opportunity.
Mailey holds out hope that the FAA might meet it’s 2015 deadline, while Cummings says it likely won’t happen, but both agree that once the regulatory issues are figured out, drones will help companies and public agencies bring their costs down and perform new tasks manned aircraft couldn’t.
“By 2020,” Mailey said, “I expect the commercial [UAV] market in the U.S. to be bigger than the defense market.”