At least ten states will be sites for testing drones — unmanned aircraft — in the next couple of years, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) announced on Monday. Six institutions have been authorized to operate test locations for the use of drones and for studying how they will interact with air traffic systems.
The drones are not the Predators, Global Hawks or other government-operated long-range planes but aircraft with potentially commercial and other uses. For instance, a Styrofoam helicopter powered by lighter fluid could be sent over fields to detect agricultural pests. An electric helicopter could be dispatched to the roof of a building to check on a water tower.
The drones will not immediately have access to the national airspace system (NAS) and are to be gradually integrated into the nation’s skies; the FAA is to develop operation guidelines by 2015. Drone research at the testing sites is intended to “help the F.A.A. answer key research questions” by providing “data and other information related to the operation” of such unmanned aircraft such as how to train and certify ground-based pilots, how to make sure the drone will still operate safely if radio contact is lost (if, for instance, the aircraft’s engine fails) and how to avoid collisions.
At Least Ten States Will Be Test Sites
The six entities that were selected as test site operators are the University of Alaska, the state of Nevada, New York’s Griffiss International Airport, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech).
The actual tests will occur in at least ten states. The University of Alaska proposal calls for “test site range locations in seven climatic zones as well as geographic diversity with test site range locations in Hawaii and Oregon.” Nevada’s testing will occur not only within the state but on its border with California. Griffiss International Airport is a a former Air Force base near Rome in upstate New York and will conduct some tests from Cape Cod in Massachusetts; it was chosen as a site to research the “complexities of integrating” drones into the crowded airspace in the Northeast. Virginia Tech’s tests (which are to study “failure mode,” when an aircraft’s control link is lost) will occur in Virginia and also in New Jersey in partnership with Rutgers University. The sites in North Dakota and Texas were in part chosen to provide “geographic and climatic diversity.”
Concerns About Surveillance and Privacy Loom
The idea of unarmed drones has raised questions about their possible use for surveillance. The F.A.A. does have a number of privacy requirements in place for the test program. Test site operators must “comply with federal, state, and other laws protecting an individual’s right to privacy, have publicly available privacy policies and a written plan for data use and retention, and conduct an annual review of privacy practices that allows for public comment.”
Luis R. Sepulveda, an assemblyman from the Bronx, who has introduced a bill to limit police use of drones in the New York State Assembly, calls the F.A.A.’s announcement of test sites both “good news… and bad news,” commenting that these are “devices that can be disguised in such a way that you don’t even know you’re being recorded.” In a report last December, the American Civil Liberties Union also pointed out that giving drones more access to our airspace leads us one step closer to a “surveillance society in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the authorities.”
Increased Use of Drones for Commercial Purposes is on the Horizon
The F.A.A. has already issued one commercial license to ConocoPhillips, the oil company, to use a ScanEagle (which the U.S. government uses for spying) off the Alaska coast, according to Michael P. Huerta, the agency’s administrator. The F.A.A. currently “keeps the use of drones on a short-leash, prohibiting their use except through specific test-site approval — as seen in today’s announcement — or as model airplanes and toys, only rarely granting commercial ventures the opportunity to use them,” as Think Progress notes.
Monday’s announcement suggests that is likely to change. State economic development agencies have predicted that the use of drones could turn into a “major industry,” the New York Times says. Amazon’s plan to develop a remotely powered octocopters to deliver small items could be just the start of commercial, unarmed aircraft routinely whizzing through our skies.
Photo via Thinkstock