FAA releases civil drone roadmap with privacy focus

Agency blueprint stresses operational safety, privacy policy for UAS test sites.

The Federal Aviation Administration has released its initial roadmap for integrating private unmanned aircraft into the nation’s airspace, stressing that the blueprint addresses safety goals that UAS operators must meet over the next five to ten years.

The roadmap released on Nov. 7 also addresses privacy issues that have slowed UAS deployment, specifically laying out a privacy policy for the nation’s six UAS test sites.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the agency’s goal remains integrating UAS technology in U.S. airspace “as quickly and safely as possible.” In a speech to an industry group detailing the UAS roadmap, Huerta said it “outlines what we need to do to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into our national airspace. It provides a five-year outlook and will have annual updates.”

Once UAS regulations are in place, the FAA estimates that 7,500 small unmanned aircraft could be flying in U.S. airspace in the next five years.

Law enforcement agencies currently operate unmanned aircraft under special rules. Huerta said the first commercial UAS flight took place above the Arctic Circle in September. Government agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA also have begun operating unmanned aircraft for coastal and storm monitoring.  

Huerta said remaining operational issues include pilot training, ensuring that unmanned aircraft can sense and avoid other aircraft and that they can be operated safely if communications links to pilots are lost. Securing radio-frequency links between aircraft and operators is considered one of the biggest safety issues that must still be resolved before regulators allow commercial UAS operations.

Along with safety, the other unresolved issue swirling around UAS deployment is privacy. The FAA’s approach to protecting civil liberties is initially focusing on UAS test sites. In February, the FAA began soliciting public comments on draft privacy requirements for the six test sites. Huerta announced this week that FAA is publishing a final privacy policy that requires test site operators to comply with state and federal laws on individual privacy protection. Test site operators would also have to conduct annual privacy reviews that would be open to the public. However, the agency offered few details on how the privacy policy would be enforced.

The vocal commercial UAS lobby praised the FAA roadmap. Michael Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Aircraft Systems International, called the blueprint an “important step toward integrating UAS and recognizing the many societal and economic benefits that will follow.” The industry group is promoting UAS technology for new applications ranging from fighting wildfires to locating missing persons.

The group said the FAA’s privacy policy correctly focuses on “the use, storage and sharing of data, or whether data collected [by UAS test sites] must be deleted.” UAS proponents are advocating a privacy policy that treats manned and unmanned aircraft the same.  “Privacy policies should focus on how data is collected and used, as opposed to focusing on the specific platform that is doing the collecting,” Toscano argued.

Meanwhile, FAA said it will continue over the next several years to use special procedures to increase UAS access to U.S. airspace on a “case-by-case basis.” The UAS roadmap “notes that this case-by-case accommodation will decline significantly as integration begins and expands, but will continue to be a practical way to allow flights by some UAS operators in certain circumstances,” the FAA said.

A growing list of states is waging an intense lobbying campaign to host one of the FAA test sites for civil unmanned aircraft. Huerta said final selection should be completed by the end of 2013. “The test sites will provide invaluable information to help us develop policies and procedures to ensure safe, responsible and transparent integration,” he added.

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