FAA's goal of integrating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System by 2015 could be delayed by a provision in the Senate's 2014 transportation bill.
(AeroVironment's PUMA UAS was recently issued a restricted commercial use permit by FAA. Photo, courtesy of AeroVironment.)
The bill requires Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to submit a detailed report on UAS integration's privacy impact to lawmakers, prior to allowing FAA to issue final regulations on the integration of UAS into the NAS. The Senate's privacy provision tasks the agency with yet another hurdle to clear in the already time consuming process of UAS integration, which requires complex technological analysis of how these aircraft will behave within civil airspace and fly in the same airspace as commercially operated passenger aircraft, among other measures.
UAS industry experts, such as Ben Gielow, government relations manager and general counsel for the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI), are concerned that the provision will further delay integration, as most industry advocates already believe FAA will miss its goal of integration by 2015. Integration will allow UAS to be operated across a wide variety of applications, including law enforcement and border control, weather monitoring, oil and gas exploration, disaster management and aerial imaging.
"We don't believe FAA should be tasked with drafting a report regarding privacy issues," said Gielow. "The agency should stick to its main concern, which is maintaining a safe airspace system, other agencies would be better suited to deal with privacy concerns."
AUVSI is concerned that delaying UAS integration would cost the U.S. thousands of new jobs that could be developed from new commercial UAS applications. Earlier this year, the organization released a forecast that contends the U.S. will lose $10 billion in potential economic impact every year that UAS integration in the airspace is delayed. The forecast also projects that UAS will generate $13.6 billion in economic impact and create more than 70,000 new jobs during the first three years after they are cleared to operate in the NAS.
These may seem like lofty numbers, but given the range of commercial applications that UAS are already able to perform, those statistics are more than likely to be achievable.
Although privacy concerns for UAS mainly result from public perception that these aircraft will be collecting data about private citizens, the only UAS that would foreseeably be used for that purpose would be those used by law enforcement in pursuit of criminals and domestic terrorists with aerial surveillance or other applications. However, the Senate funding bill requires Foxx to submit a report detailing the "application of existing privacy law to governmental and non-governmental entities," and "recommend next steps in how the FAA or other federal agencies can address the impact of widespread use of UAS on individual privacy concern."
Therefore, the agency would be tasked with researching how UAS that do not collect any type of "personally identifiable information" could impact individual privacy.
Regardless of the privacy issue though, FAA is working hard towards opening the skies for commercially operated UAS. The agency recently issued its first restricted type certificates for commercially operated UAS
to AeroVironment for its PUMA UAS, and Insitu for its Scan Eagle X200. Both of these certificates were developed based off military acceptance of these aircraft, which pushed them into the restricted category.
By the end of the year the agency will also have selected at least six testing sites across the U.S. to use for developing certification and navigation requirements for the aircraft.
On Thursday, the Senate voted to block the transportation funding bill as it currently stands. According to Gielow, AUVSI is currently working with its allies in both chambers of Congress to "ensure the industry is not harmed by overly onerous restrictions."