We know that the civilian UAV debates in this country occupy a stage at least as expansive as the U.S. national airspace (NAS) and the six states destined to be designated official UAV test sites. The players range from industry giants Boeing, Lockheed Martin and AeroVironment to well-financed organizations such as the FAA, AUVSI and the ACLU to local sheriff departments, business owners and private citizens. What are less clear are the rules.
While Congress focuses on debating weaponized drone use, legislators in over 30 states have introduced bills–mostly centered on privacy infringement in the context of law enforcement–to restrict the use of civilian UAVs with mixed results. Charlottesville, VA became the first city in the United States to formally pass an anti-drone resolution, calling on the U.S. Congress and the Commonwealth of Virginia to adopt legislation prohibiting information obtained from the domestic use of drones from being introduced into a Federal or State Court; Florida?s Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act (SB92) and Illinois? Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act (SB1587) also passed full State Senate votes. Meanwhile, a bill that would have restricted domestic drone use in Washington State never even made it to a floor vote.
Understandably, there is a great deal of market uncertainty generated by the UAV debates and a great deal of importance placed on their outcomes. In a broad sense, they attract global conjecturing as to whether the U.S. will become a significant civilian UAV manufacturer and exporter. Cinched defense spending has caused large UAV manufacturers like AeroVironment and Raytheon to target more civilian applications. In the meantime, small UAV start-ups with unique applications are losing investors, capital and patience waiting for the FAA to establish a clear path to certification.
“The U.S. has been at the lead of this technology a long time. If our government holds back this technology, there’s the freedom to move elsewhere … and all of a sudden these things will be flying everywhere else and competing with us,” says Robert Fitzgerald, CEO of the BOSH Group of Newport News, Va., which provides support services to drone users.
In the simplest terms, UAVs can significantly reduce costs by taking over jobs already performed by manned aircraft such as crop dusting, aerial surveillance and transporting freight.
In the case of public safety, for instance, a UAV costing $30-40,000 can now provide the same surveillance capabilities as a $500,000 police chopper (which costs an additional $250 per hour to operate). Additionally, the unmanned vehicles can be launched very quickly and from almost any location.
In Mesa County, Colo., the police department has already used its UAV to find missing people, conduct an aerial landfill survey and assist first responders in subduing a church fire.
?It?s the Wal-Mart version of what we?d normally get at Saks Fifth Avenue,? Benjamin Miller, who leads the UAV program for Mesa County?s police department, told NBC.
In other application areas, including highway and bridge inspection, extreme sports photography/videography and environmental monitoring, low-cost aerial devices hold vast potential. They can collect better data, fly closer to their targets and enter potentially hazardous areas without risking human lives.
Chris Anderson, chief executive of 3D Robotics, which makes small, inexpensive UAVs using many components commonly found in smart phones, sells more civilian UAVs every six months than the entire drone fleet of the U.S. military, which numbers about 7,000 aircraft. The UAV maker has made notable progress in creating software and hardware that will allow these devices to be used in applications where they previously would have encountered limitations.
A recent report, commissioned by AUVSI and titled The Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the United States, identifies public safety and precision agriculture as the most profitable near-term applications, comprising approximately 90% of the known potential markets.
The report projects that, if allowed, the integration of UAVs into the NAS will total more than $13.6 billion and create more than 70,000 new jobs in the first three years. By 2025 job creation is estimated to reach almost 104,000. According to Darryl Jenkins, an airline analyst who co-authored the report, this market growth is expected to increase dramatically for the first five years and then level off at a rate a tad faster than the GDP.
Authors of the report based their conclusions on the results of UAV adoption in other countries such as Japan–where 90 percent of crop spraying is done by UAVs–as well as surveys, land ratios and rates of adoption of new technology in general. The findings focus on small to medium sized UAVs in the $30-40,000 range.
While it?s certain that early talks regarding regulations are necessary to protect the public from falling victim to policy by procurement, those states who implement strict anti-drone regulations risk excluding themselves from the higher paying manufacturing jobs and tax revenues expected to be generated by the new industry. In Virginia, for example, the state General Assembly passed a bill that would place a two-year moratorium on the use of UAVs by state and local law enforcement.
??states that create favorable regulatory and business environments for the industry and the technology will likely siphon jobs away from states that do not,? warns the report.
More compelling still is this statistical wake-up call: ?The United States loses $27.6 million in potential economic impact every day that integration is delayed??that?s $10 billion per year.
A little privacy, please
The process of forging an understanding between the law, the public and the UAV industry is complex. The public and legislators alike have learned from the rapid advancement of cellular and Internet tools to examine potentially invasive technologies before they become so prevalent that legislation must be applied retroactively.
While this upstart aerial technology can allow municipal and commercial entities to more efficiently serve their communities, it also has the potential to enable the infringement of citizens? Fourth Amendment rights and to change their everyday lives.
?It?s important to remember that UAVs, by themselves, are not the cause of privacy concerns,? says Andrew C. Keisner, an associate in the Intellectual Property and Litigation Practice Groups of Davis & Gilbert LLP. ?Rather, the privacy issues arise when certain types of devices are used on UAVs.?
According to Keisner, there is at least some case law pertaining to the use of high powered cameras and infra-red sensors that they can use to determine the potential legal limits.
There are very few limits on public video surveillance because a person does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a public place. And Supreme Court precedent has already been set regarding manned aircraft surveillance by law enforcement. Florida v. Riley found if evidence is gathered from public airspace, a search warrant is not necessary.
On the other hand, most states have laws regulating the use of video surveillance in private places. In many states, such as California, New Hampshire and Utah, it is illegal to use a camera recording device to spy or eavesdrop in a private place without consent. Depending on the state, the use of a hidden camera in a private place is either a misdemeanor or a felony.
The issue of privacy, then, also involves the ability to obtain permission from individual citizens as land and data owners.
?While obtaining consent may be possible on the internet (and ecommerce companies can reduce the risk of violating data privacy laws by seeking customer consent), it may not be feasible for a UAV to obtain consent before collecting data,? Keisner says.
Most state legislation and national debate centers on the use of UAVs for intentional surveillance by the police. According to a survey conducted by The Associated Press and The National Constitution Center, 44 percent of Americans actually support the idea of police using unmanned aerial vehicles to track suspects and carry out investigations.
Last month, U.S. Reps. Ted Poe, R-Texas and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., introduced the Preserving American Privacy Act of 2013, which would prohibit the private use of UAVs to capture ?any visual image, sound recording or other physical impression? of individuals without their consent, and would only allow the government to conduct surveillance when it has received a probable cause warrant. Exceptions include UAV use for fire and rescue operations, to monitor droughts, to assess flood damage and to chase a fleeing criminal.
Florida?s Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act (SB92), sets rules for the use of UAVs without a warrant, while allowing exceptions for high-risk situations when swift action is necessary. Three specified exceptions allow for the use of UAVs in the event of a terrorist situation, when law enforcement gets a warrant signed by a judge and exigent circumstances such as a missing person or hostage situation, according to bill sponsor, Sen. Joe Negron, R.
Other applications?such as civil inspection?in which a UAV might perform ?unintentional? surveillance while engaged in another task, however, are left unaddressed.
On this score, the FAA has repeatedly emphasized its responsibility is to ensure public safety, not privacy. It will address the risk of low altitude UAVs colliding with other aircraft and even UAV hacking, but not the implications of potential surveillance equipment attached to the vehicles.
The September 2012 GAO report on unmanned aircraft systems noted, ?Currently, no federal agency has specific statutory responsibility to regulate privacy matters relating to UAV for the entire federal government.?
Your flight has been delayed
This proverbial passing of the buck is just one issue delaying the industry?s takeoff.
Despite the FAA resuming its agenda to allow unmanned aircraft into commercial airspace by 2015, those close to the industry aren?t optimistic about the red tape disappearing anytime soon. Even public entities that have received the FAA?s Certificate of Authorization admit that the process usually takes much longer than the advertised 60 days. And, with the jury still out in most states regarding whether or not UAVs will even be permissible in the near future, potential customers can only speculate before purchasing the technology.
In Seattle, for example, the police department received an FAA permit, but had to relinquish the UAVs it had purchased when civilian protests prompted the mayor to ban their use.
Small UAV manufacturers interested in, say, providing robots for cell phone tower inspection cannot win commercial partners or clients as long as it is unclear when or how they can begin to certify remote operators. As private businesses, these distributors are not currently eligible to apply for Certificates of Authorization.
?During the past year, rising concern over the legality of commercial UAVs has seemed to move in one direction?disfavoring anything legalizing UAVs in U.S. airspace,? says Keisner.?The billion dollar question is what laws will ultimately replace the legal uncertainty on these privacy issues, and will it be regulations that UAV companies can reasonably navigate.?
It could be taken as a good sign that companies like Hoverfly and 3D Robotics, undeterred, continue to build industry associations and lay the foundations for a rich UAV industry to develop around them. The technology is certainly ready, but more small businesses holding out for the soon-to-boom UAV industry may fall victim to a consequential market shake out. In any case, they?re in for a bumpy ride.Read More