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Drone Update: Latest on FAA, Privacy and Industry Desire

The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing on drones in commerce revealed several key issues present in the current state of the commercial unmanned aircraft systems industry.
By Luke Geiver | June 18, 2015

The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing on drones in commerce revealed several key issues present in the current state of the commercial unmanned aircraft systems industry. We posted a recap story a few hours after the hearing adjourned here, but here is a breakdown of takeaway points from the hearing that included: Michael Whitaker, deputy administrator for the U.S. Department of Transportation; John Cavolowsky, director of airspace systems program office at NASA; Brian Wynne, president and CEO for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International; Paul Misener, vice president of global public policy for Amazon Inc.; and Harley Geiger, advocacy director and senior counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology.

On the FAA:

Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, displayed a clear command of the hearing—often cutting in with short responses—as the FAA provided long answers to simple questions asked to understand when small UAV rules will be final. Mica made it clear several times that Congress is not happy about the FAA’s delay in meeting milestones. And, he even made a point to tell his staff to put on record answers regarding deadlines and plans the FAA has for the future. “We put in milestones to hold people’s feet to the fire,” Mica said. His efforts resulted in the reveal of a release date for the final rule on small UAVs: June 2016. But, who knows if that date will hold up outside of a congressional hearing setting. Whitaker seemed to believe the final rule could be finished much sooner than that.

Another off-topic questioning session from a Massachusetts representative highlighted the fact that the FAA is in a tough spot with appeasing the needs of Congress while completing its own agenda. The representative, frustrated that the FAA could not make it to his district to discuss congested airspace travel over his constituent’s homes, made it clear that if the FAA couldn’t make it to the area for public outreach, then the money given to the FAA for such work should be cut.

On Privacy:

The issue of privacy continues to be a major hurdle for some members of Congress. During most hearings, there are some that do not focus on privacy and are instead concerned about technology offerings or commercial roll-out plans, but as this hearing revealed yet again, the question of privacy remains pertinent to the development of the industry regardless of what answer is ever given.

Geiger, on the testimony panel, was there to address privacy concerns. Several members of the committee sought out perspective from Geiger on privacy issues. His responses revolved around his team’s belief that the UAS industry should have several approaches to dealing with privacy. Law enforcement officials should only be able to utilize UAVs with a warrant, the industry should enact a code of conduct for maintaining privacy rights and the expectation of privacy needs to be further defined. That last point was the major talking point of the committee.

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky, asked Geiger about personal property, specifically a lawn and gate. “The privacy aspect of drones does present some new challenges. Should there be a floor for operation of drones? Do you own the property an inch above your lawn? If you have a locked gate on your property and somebody climbs over the gate, your expectation is that they are violating your privacy. What if they fly over your gate?” he asked.

Geiger’s response, along with others on the panel, was that property owners can expect to own a reasonable amount of airspace above their respective property. But, the real question, Geiger expressed, was one of privacy expectations. Drones are pushing the limits of what an individual can expect as his or her privacy expectation rights. Until that is dealt with or made clear by some government entity, the drone industry will continue to develop at a slower-than-possible pace because the general public won’t embrace the industry until the question is dealt with.

Mica and others offered perspective that shows why any answer to the question will be difficult to come too. When Mica and others began working on UAS work with the FAA five years ago, they were unsure who would regulate or create privacy related policy. The same problem is still prevalent. “Who basically is in charge of setting the rules for privacy? Is it the individual states and law enforcement, is it the Department of Justice, is this an FAA responsibility?” he asked.

To date, the committee and panel agreed that states are leading on privacy related issues. And, although only briefly expressed, it was clear that the issue of privacy isn’t just about surveillance or data gathering, it also about rules of drone engagement. To end his questioning session, Massie made the point that there may need to be rules of engagement developed for non-drone operators that are in the same space as UAVs to avoid situations where UAVs are taken out of flight operations by any means.

Misener and Wynne also explained the unique position of the UAS industry in the privacy discussion. The industry, more than any party, needs to maintain client, consumer and customer trust that it is abiding by privacy expectations. The greatest negative privacy or flight operation events could then, happen in the amateur operation space.

Industry’s Stance:

AUVSI President Brian Wynne has certainly settled in to his position leading the industry’s main lobbying and support group. His message and answers were clear and well explained and there seemed to be no doubt by any of the committee members that his perspective was spot-on and valuable.

During his introductory comments, he outlined several things the industry believes in and would like to see happen in the future. First, beyond-line-of-sight operations need to happen sooner-than-later, as further delay will stunt the growth of an industry, that when delayed from full commercial operations, loses $10 billion per year in potential economic impact.

Second, Amazon, AUVSI and others support the FAA dealing with UAS integration on a risk-based approach. UAS applications should be allowed to happen, regardless of the technology platform, based on the application’s relevance to safety standards. A flight over a rural farmer’s field, for example, should be allowed to happen sooner because the risk of such flight is much smaller than flying over a crowd.

Third, the government’s role in developing and testing UAS should continue. In fact, it should be better funded and more clearly defined. AUVSI believes the six UAS test sites designated by the FAA should be better funded and leaned upon for moving the industry forward. And, other programs, specifically the FAA’s pathfinder program that will help show the possibilities of beyond-line-of-sight, should also be more clearly defined. They should, Wynne said, have their own clear path as to how they will be help the further commercialization of the industry.

In the end, Whitaker’s FAA perspective was positive. He navigated difficult questions and revealed that the FAA has what it believes to be a multi-faceted rollout plan for integrating UAS into the national airspace with clear parameters.