After the historic filibuster by Senator Rand Paul, the issue concerning the use of drones to target U.S. citizens on American soil will be fresh in people's minds for a while. However, a much less discussed issue was also mentioned by Senator Paul: the use of drones for non-military surveillance. Tweet at @SenRandPaul: Tweet
In February 2012, Congress included a mandate in the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) reauthorization bill, giving the agency three years to integrate Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) -- or drones -- in the National Air Space (NAS). As the FAA is already in charge of the safety of the country's entire airspace, it has until 2015 to test all aspects of adding non-military surveillance drones in the country's already crowded sky.
Since the issue of privacy is already well know and under discussion in numerous states, more practical questions will arise when an estimated 10,000 drones occupy U.S. airspace in the next 5 years: Tweet it: Tweet
What would happen if a drones loses communication with its ground operator? What preventative measures will be in place in the event someone hijacks a drone for malicious intentions? What steps will be taken to avoid mid-air collisions between small UAVs and planes or other UAVs? Will a license be required to become a drone pilot?
The FAA is already allowing temporary and experimental use of UAVs by public agencies and civil operators -- mostly drone manufacturers. These legal uses are contingent on obtaining a license from the FAA and must be performed outside densely-populated areas.
On February 14, the FAA started the process of selecting six sites across the country where the the agency expects "to learn how unmanned aircraft systems operate in different environments and how they will impact air traffic operations."
The operators of these sites, most likely state or local governments, will have to make sure that in the course of their operations, they respect a set of privacy principles that are at the core of many federal and state statutes. The privacy issue surrounding the pilot program is currently open to comments from the public.
December 2015 is the fixed deadline for the agency to come up with a comprehensive plan for integrating government and non-government UAVs into U.S. airspace. Between now and then, many factors will influence the future framework surrounding the non-military use of UAVs. Tweet it: Tweet
Drones manufacturers have already begun promoting the positives aspects of UAVs to the general public and the useful, non law-enforcement related tasks they can perform. With a domestic market that could reach $90 billion and create thousands of jobs around the country at stake, the drone industry has also spent millions in lobbying activities in D.C. and in states legislatures.
State regulations will be an important factor in shaping the future of UAV use. The Virginia legislature was the first to regulate UAVs by enacting a two and a half year moratorium on law enforcement use.
Many other states, including Oregon, Texas, Nebraska, Missouri, North Dakota, Florida, and Maine, are also considering similar regulations.
If the issue of the lethal use of drones by the current administration against U.S. citizens is an easy one to rally against, the broader integration of UAVs in the daily lives of Americans is a more complicated discussion that needs to be addressed before it's too late.