Like it or not, drones are coming to America's skies — lots of them. By 2025, the government expects tens of thousands of drones to take flight, and it's scrambling to get the proper regulations in place. It's not off to a great start.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) got the ball rolling on Thursday by publishing a hundred-page roadmap for how we're going to get there. Produced under direct orders from Congress, the awkwardly titled report — "Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System Roadmap" — goes into detail not only about how drones will be used domestically but also how technology and protocol will have to change in order to safely integrate the new unmanned aerial vehicles into our air traffic control system. The drone industry loved the report, since it gave them some clear guidance on how to prepare for regulations.
Privacy advocates did not love the report. In fact, they kind of hated it, since it really didn't outline any specifics for how Americans' privacy would be protected as the potentially invasive new technology takes over. The issue of privacy is actually raised in the report — the FAA devoted a little over 300 words to it in a 25,000-word document — but it's glossed over. Basically, the FAA is punting the issue and pointing to existing state and federal privacy laws to provide safeguards. There will also be six test sites in yet-to-be determined locations that will be free to write their own privacy rules.
Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts democrat, did not mince his words when he offered his opinion of this plan. "The FAA made a huge, historic mistake today in not attaching privacy requirements to this new technology that can spy on Americans," he said in a statement. "This disregard for the need for strong and comprehensive privacy safeguards underscores why we must pass federal legislation to protect innocent individuals from expanded use of commercial and government drones." He added that "Protecting Americans' privacy from drones should not be dependent on the drone's flight path."
Markey's taken his concern further than a press release. The junior senator drafted legislation, the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act, that he says "requires transparency on the domestic use of drones and adds privacy protections that ensure this technology cannot and will not be used to spy on Americans." Of course, the drone industry would like as few roadblocks to getting those birds in the air as possible, even though FAA chief Michael Huerta says that there are "significant challenges" to face before that happens. However he also said, "We are dedicated to moving this exciting new technology along as quickly and safely as possible."
But hey, at least the agency mentioned privacy. The ACLU who supports Markey's bill said as much in a statement of their own and implored Congress to weigh in on issues that were outside the FAA's purview. And that's a good point. The FAA isn't really used to dealing with privacy issues, since, you know, they do planes. But we're only starting to find out how tricky things get when those planes don't have pilots. [FAA via WSJ, The Hill, Bloomberg]