The Federal Aviation Administration announced Thursday that it is seeking proposals from states, universities and other organizations for six sites where unmanned aircraft systems will be tested - a major step for integrating domestic drones into the U.S. airspace system.
"Our focus is on maintaining and improving the safety and efficiency of the world's largest aviation system," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement Thursday. "This research will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation's skies."
The FAA ensured that the test sites would be required to adhere to privacy standards during all of their research and testing.
"Each site operator and its team members will be required to operate in accordance with federal, state and other laws regarding the protection of an individual's right to privacy," the FAA said in a statement.
While the FAA is responsible for ensuring the safe integration of unmanned aircraft into U.S. airspace, questions loomed at a House hearing Friday over which agency would be responsible for regulating privacy issues.
"It's unknown at this point," Gerald Dillingham, director of Physical Infrastructure Issues at the Government Accountability Office, said at a Science, Space and Technology House subcommittee Friday. "From our perspective, that's one of the big obstacles to integration - that is public acceptance, public education, public concern about how their data will be used."
"American public are just frightened frankly about the use of UAS to possibly have invasions of their privacy and invasions of their civil rights and I'm extremely interested in making sure that we protect those privacy issues and civil rights issues," Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight for the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, said.
"We have to at least figure out who the go to person is in the administration so that it doesn't fall through the cracks," Rep. Dan Maffei, D-N.Y., ranking member of the subcommittee, said.
The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 required the FAA establish test sites for domestic drones by the end of 2012, a deadline which the agency missed as it assessed privacy concerns, as well as the full integration of unmanned aircraft systems into U.S. airspace by September 2015, which FAA views as a starting point.
"Our approach is a phased approach and we're very cognizant that the FAA Act of 2012 called for safe integration by 2015. We view that as a beginning," Karlin Toner, director of the Joint Program Development Office at the FAA, said. "We're taking a phased in approach. In 2015 we'll have integration beginning but as we move towards the next gen system there will be new capabilities that make this an even more efficient integration for more varieties of aircraft."
Reps. Tom Poe, R-Texas, and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., introduced legislation Thursday that would establish guidelines for who can use drones and for what purposes as well as ban unmanned aircraft systems containing firearms in the U.S.
"As we enter this uncharted world of drone technology, Congress must be proactive and establish boundaries for drone use that safeguard the Constitutional rights of Americans," Poe said in a statement. "Individuals are rightfully concerned that these new eyes in the sky may threaten their privacy. It is the obligation of Congress to ensure that this does not happen. Just because Big Brother can look into someone's backyard doesn't mean it should. Technology may change, but the Constitution does not."
"Whether we like it or not, for better or for worse, this technology is here, and it's not going away," Maffei said at the hearing. "We must develop the necessary framework to handle UAS emerging safely and securely. We must also ensure the protection of individual rights and personal privacy in the air and on the ground."
Here is a 2012 World News piece on domestic drones from JimAvila: