August 08, 2013      

The Senate has just passed its 2014 transportation bill, and the news doesn?t sound good for the robotics community. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) wants to integrate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System (NAS) by 2015, but the recent transportation bill could delay this goal.

The problem is the general misconception that drones will collect personally identifiable data about civilians, thereby breaching their privacy. For this reason, to integrate UAS into the NAS, the Senate has required Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to write a detailed report about 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.?

Realistically, the only drones that could potentially collect citizens? private data would be law enforcement drones using aerial surveillance to catch criminals and domestic terrorists. This is considered a fair price to pay for citizens? safety, and even laws such as Illinois? Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act have clauses that allow drone use in these cases if permitted by the United States Secretary of Homeland Security. However the Senate?s new bill still requires a statement on how UAS that don?t collect personally identifiable info can impact individual privacy, which means time-consuming research must be done on the subject, regardless of how relevant the information ends up being.

This is extra work added on to the already mandatory technological analysis of how UAS will play into the current airspace in relation to commercial and passenger aircraft, among other things. These processes make the chance of UAS integration by 2015 pretty slim, which could actually end up hurting the United States economy, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI).

AUVSI calculates that UAS will generate $13.6 billion in potential economic impact and create over 70,000 new jobs in the first three years after being integrated into the NAS. This is due to the various applications UAS could be used for, including but not limited to oil and gas exploration, aerial imaging, disaster management, weather monitoring, law enforcement, and border control.

If the Senate bill?s additional requirements causes the delay of UAS integration, the same AUVSI report estimates it will occur at an annual cost of $10 billion in potential economic impact, not to mention thousands of new jobs. Needless to say, this bill is no small ordeal for the FAA, and the rest of the robotics community.