FAA Paves Way For Large-Scale Use Of Civilian Drones In American Skies

This photo taken March 26, 2013, shows flight test pilot Alex Gustafson carrying an InsituScanEagle unmanned aircraft in preparation for a flight in Arlington, Ore. It’s a good bet that in the not-so-distant future aerial drones will be part of Americans’ everyday lives, performing countless useful functions. A far cry from the killing machines whose missiles incinerate terrorists, these generally small unmanned aircraft will help farmers more precisely apply water and pesticides to crops, saving money and reducing environmental impacts. They’ll help police departments to find missing people, reconstruct traffic accidents and act as lookouts for SWAT teams. They’ll alert authorities to people stranded on rooftops by hurricanes, and monitor evacuation flows.  (AP Photo/Don Ryan)This photo taken March 26, 2013, shows flight test pilot Alex Gustafson carrying an InsituScanEagle unmanned aircraft in preparation for a flight in Arlington, Ore. In the not-so-distant future aerial drones will be part of Americans’ everyday lives, performing countless useful functions. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

On Thursday, the Federal Aviation Administration outlined for the first time how it plans to implement the widespread use of civilian-owned drones “safely and efficiently” into the National Airspace System by 2015.

In a report, titled “Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System Roadmap,” the FAA said that drones have been used in U.S. airspace on a limited basis since the early 1990s, and attempted to address concerns that drones impede on a person’s privacy.

The push to legalize drones for civilian use such as agricultural purposes, law enforcement, weather forecasting and tracking wildlife has largely been part of a lobbying effort made by the Aerospace Industries Association, an industry trade group.

During an aerospace news conference on Thursday, FAA administrator Michael Huerta said that within the next five years he expects about 7,500 small unmanned aerial vehicles in U.S. airspace. By 2025 there may be more than 30,000 drones in American skies, which some government studies estimate will likely correspond with the creation of some 100,000 jobs.

Do privacy concerns outweigh benefits?

“Until recently UAS mainly supported public operations, such as military and border security operations,” the report says, adding that “the list of potential uses is now rapidly expanding to encompass a broad range of other activities, including aerial photography, surveying land and crops, communications and broadcast, monitoring forest fires and environmental conditions, and protecting critical infrastructures.”

But before drones become commonplace, the FAA has some work to do, including addressing concerns that drones would invade citizens’ privacy.

Before Thursday’s presentation, the Wall Street Journal published a report indicating that the FAA would likely announce that “no major privacy-protection initiatives” would be necessary before allowing the large-scale use of civilian drones.

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