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February 15, 2013

The UFOs of today are us: unmanned flying objects are here to stay; now we need to make them safe and legal

by: Mary F. Schiavo

Forget Roswell or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 that it is soliciting proposals from state and local governments, eligible universities and other public entities to develop six unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) research and test sites around the country. However, UAS are not coming; UAS are already here. I bought my first one several years ago and I think the systems have only gotten better. They are fun to fly, but you can conduct aerial surveillance with them. So, along with the request, the FAA also posted a draft plan for protecting people’s privacy from these new eyes in the sky.

Long used by the military and law enforcement, scores of other uses have become apparent for drones or UAS; however, a drone has never been used over American soil. According to media reports, there are many potential uses for civilian operated drones, including, “Power companies want them to monitor transmission lines. Farmers want to fly them over fields to detect which crops need water. Ranchers want them to count cows. Film companies want to use drones to help make movies. Journalists are exploring drones' newsgathering potential.”

If used responsibly and legally, UAS will be the major next step in civil aviation innovation, and the FAA even stated it believes about 10,000 civilian drones will be in use in the U.S. within five years. However, if used without regard to safety of other aircraft, people on the ground over whose heads and property the UAS are maneuvering, UAS could present serious safety, security and legal hazards.

Just to give you a little background on this development, through the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress directed the FAA to establish this program to conduct critical research into how best to safely integrate UAS into the national airspace over the next several years, including what certification and navigation requirements needed to be established.

“Our focus is on maintaining and improving the safety and efficiency of the world's largest aviation system,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “This research will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation’s skies.”

In its recent announcement, the FAA stated that it will ensure that the introduction of these systems into the airspace will not invade privacy or other legal rights. Although some privacy advocates believe that drones in the skies could lead to a “surveillance society” in which citizens are monitored, tracked and scrutinized by authorities. As a result, the FAA is requesting public input into their efforts to ensure that privacy questions surrounding the pilot program are properly addressed.

When evaluating proposals, the FAA will consider geographic and climatic diversity, location of ground infrastructure and research needs, population and air traffic density, as well as specific goals and objectives to be accomplished.

“We expect to learn how unmanned aircraft systems operate in different environments and how they will impact air traffic operations. The test sites will also inform the agency as we develop standards for certifying unmanned aircraft and determine necessary air traffic requirements,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.

The FAA anticipates it will select the six test sites later this year.

It is imperative that Americans, on the ground and in the air, their legal counsel and anyone concerned with the safety and security of our airspace, voice their concerns at this critical juncture. While I think UAS can be useful and even fun, they pose some alarming security, safety and privacy concerns, so let’s make sure pilots both in the air and on the ground flying remotely are meeting the most stringent safety and security standards and are following the law.