SurveillanceU.S. skies may soon be open to drones

Published 27 November 2012

Unmanned drones are cheaper than manned aircraft and can be used in a variety of ways, such as assessing environmental threats and damage from natural disaster, tracking criminals trying to escape on a highway, and assessing wildfires; according to an FAA prediction, 30,000 drones could be flying in the United States in less than twenty years; lawmakers and privacy advocates want the use of these drones more tightly regulated

The U.S. government is attempting to open up the sky for drone use all over the nation. The sixty members House of Representatives’ Drone Caucus have pushed the agenda, and over the last four years caucus members have raised almost $8 million in drone-related campaign contributions.

The Houston Chronicle reports that theFederal Aviation Administration (FAA) is swamped with applications from police departments, universities, private corporations, and even celebrity tabloid site TMZ seeking to use a wide range of drones for everything from law enforcement to weather mapping to stalking celebrities.

Drone use in the United States began with aerial patrols of the Mexican Border Patrol authorities. Since then the drone industry, along with law enforcement, have demanded more drone use, which led to provisions in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act which was signed into law in February.

According to the provisions, the law requires the FAA fully to incorporate unmanned aerial drones into national airspace by 2015, but there have been some deadlines already which have not been met.

This month the FAA was supposed to create a plan to integrate drones into public airspace and in August, the FAA was required to have a plan for testing in six different sites in the United States.

These timelines are very aggressive,” Heidi Williams a vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, told the Chronicle. “These issues are very complex, and we have a long way to go.”

Unmanned drones are cheaper than manned aircraft and can be used in a variety of ways, such as assessing environmental threats and damage from natural disaster, tracking criminals trying to escape on a highway, and assessing wildfires. According to an FAA prediction, 30,000 drones could be flying in the United States in less than twenty years.

One FAA official told the Chronicle that “one of the main safety issues” with drones is lack of ability to “sense and avoid other aircraft.”

Government Accountability Office (GAO)report in September identified the same fears as well as “Concerns about national security, privacy and interference with Global Positioning System signals have not been resolved.”

FAA administrator Michael Huerta said the FAA is working with “collision avoidance experts” from the Defense Department, NASA, and private firms to determine what standards and requirements should be set.

Some lawmakers along with civil rights advocates are worrying about government eavesdropping, surveillance photography, and other violations.

The drones are coming,” shouted Representative Ted Poe (R-Texas) earlier this year from the House floor, as he warned of encroachment by government into the rights of citizens.

In June 2011 several cows wandered out to a farm owned by Rodney Bossart, who claimed ownership of the cows and pulled firearms on several officers. During the standoff, a SWAT team was able to use surveillance information from a Customs and Border Protection drone. The information provided helped in the arrest of the farmer. The case was appealed by Bossart but was upheld by a North Dakota Court. This is a significant case as it marks the first time national security surveillance was used in the arrest of a U.S. citizen on non-terror related charges. According to Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, it will be a trend soon.

Based on current trends, technology development, law enforcement interest, political and industry pressure and the lack of legal safeguards - it is clear that drones pose a looming threat to Americans’ privacy,” Stanley told the Chronicle.

Many law enforcement agencies feel that drone will better protect citizens and police officers, while at the same time saving lives.

Some lawmakers want the oversight of drone use switched from the FAA to DHS. Representative Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on oversight, leads the charge, saying DHS is more familiar with drone technology and is suited to handle the potential risk of a drone being hi-jacked by terrorists.

Both political parties are aware of the privacy issues this can cause. This year’s Republican platform stated: [W]e support pending legislation to prevent unwarranted or unreasonable governmental intrusion through the use of aerial surveillance … with the exception of patrolling our national borders.”

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