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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Pilotless Drones: Background and Considerations for Congress Regarding Unmanned Aircraft Operations in the National Airspace System

Bart Elias
Specialist in Aviation Policy

Growing interest in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), particularly for homeland security and law enforcement applications, has spurred considerable debate over how to accommodate these unmanned aircraft and keep them safely separated from other air traffic. Additionally, the use of these pilotless aircraft, popularly referred to as drones, for aerial surveillance and law enforcement purposes has raised specific concerns regarding privacy and Fourth Amendment rights and potential intrusiveness. These issues have come to the forefront in policy debate in response to provisions in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (P.L. 112-95) that require the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to begin integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system by the end of FY2015.

While drones have been used extensively by the military and small radio-controlled model aircraft have been around for more than 50 years, advances in more complex vehicle controls and imaging sensor capabilities are spurring public sector and commercial interest in unmanned aircraft for a variety of purposes, including law enforcement, homeland security, aerial imaging, and scientific research. FAA currently approves public entities (such as federal agencies, public universities, and local police departments) to operate UAVs on a case-by-case basis, but growing interest is making this approach increasingly untenable. Moreover, commercial users are seeking authorization to fly drones, but so far FAA has only allowed test and demonstration flights by manufacturers. FAA faces a number of challenges to address anticipated growth in demand for civilian UAV operations and develop regulations governing the certification and operation of unmanned aircraft systems in domestic airspace.

Congress has generally supported efforts to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system and foster growth in the unmanned aircraft industry. It enacted extensive provisions in P.L. 112-95 that are designed to streamline and accelerate the operation of unmanned aircraft in domestic airspace by both public entities and commercial operators. Notably, that law requires FAA to issue regulations pertaining to the operation of small UAVs (weighing less than 55 pounds) and requires FAA to create and implement a plan to begin the integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system by the end of FY2015. Toward that goal, the act requires FAA to establish six test ranges throughout the United States to study unmanned aircraft integration technical issues.

The act establishes an ambitious timeline for FAA to grapple with and resolve a number of complex issues regarding the safety and security of unmanned aircraft operations. Furthermore, aircraft operators have expressed specific concerns that drone operations should not result in airspace restrictions or other measures that could limit accessibility to the national airspace system.

In addition to these various challenges, the privacy implications and potential intrusiveness of drone operations have emerged as a significant issue before Congress. Civil liberties and privacy groups have cautioned that voluntary industry measures, including a code of conduct to, among other things, respect privacy, are inadequate to assure that drones will not be misused in ways that could infringe upon the privacy of individuals and intrude upon their daily activities. Moreover, FAA’s authority over specific uses of civilian unmanned aircraft appears limited so long as safety and national security are not compromised, raising additional concerns that future drone operations could lead to complaints and lawsuits over noise, intrusiveness, and interference with the use and enjoyment of public or private property.

Date of Report: September 10, 2012
Number of Pages: 24
Order Number: R42718
Price: $29.95

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