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FAA Drone Rules:

A Privacy Enigma

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Lockheed Martin's High Altitude Airship concept.
Although Predators and Reapers Are Getting The Most Attention, Other Types Will Have More Of An Impact Because Of Cost, Capability


By John Guzzon
Modern Times Magazine

March 28, 2012 — When the Federal Aviation Administration received marching orders to to integrate drone aircraft into the nation’s airspace from Congress last month via the FAA Reauthorization Act, it was the start of a new era in aviation and just possibly, human history.

The resulting future could be a place where small, lightweight craft are used for things such as inspecting roofs and chasing down bank robbers, but also a place where craft remain aloft for days, weeks or months, capturing nearly everything that goes on below. The groundwork has been done: military applications have proven the effectiveness of most of these remote controlled and autonomous aircraft, and when the FAA finally gets around to determining the rules which will guide their development, the commercialization of them will begin.

But unlike revolutions in other industries, these craft are all designed for the purposes of gathering intelligence on people — along with the byproduct that some applications can also be a conduit for communications. Within the next three years, it is likely that it will be perfectly legal and easily attainable for commercial enterprises and federal, state and local governments throughout the world and across the country to hoist them up into the skies above us all.

Some worry, though, that once the genie is let out of the bottle, it will be too late to put it back. The result will be a world where eyes in the sky can see everything, everywhere, anytime.

The FAA’s Reauthorization
Operating radio-controlled or autonomous craft of any type has been illegal for as long as it has been possible — for commercial purposes, that is. That was fine as long as there was not any commercial endeavor that could alleviate profits from it. Now, though, technology has progressed to the point that a variety of cottage industries have begun to assert themselves in sufficient numbers for the FAA to start taking an active role in enforcing the ban.

Business Week reported in February that MI6 Films, a Hollywood-based company that captures overhead views for movies, television and realtors selling McMansions, had been using small drones instead of hiring a helicopter crew and a photographer. The cost was lower and the images of a high-quality. But, according to Business Week, owner Russ Freeman was ordered by the FAA in October to stop flying his drones since he was engaged in a commercial endeavor.

“He (the FAA representative) literally put us out of business,” Freeman told Business Week.

Police agencies in cities across the country have also been clamoring for the use of more drones — mainly micro UAVs which can stay aloft for short periods of time, with a maximum altitude of a few hundred feet. The relatively low cost of operation is a great incentive — less than the cost of an average police cruiser in most cases. They also may be able to replace helicopters that have been used in many large cities for decades. Many cities have one or two UAVs in their arsenals right now, as can be determined by the nearly 300 waivers that the FAA has awarded, but new waivers are basically on hold now that the path to a full fledged policy for implementation had begun.

While these “micro” UAVs are definitely highly sought-after, some are even eagerly looking to put the Predators and Raptors that will no longer be needed in Iraq and Afghanistan to work in the United States. The most feasible uses for such craft would be to battle wildfires or national emergencies.

Higher up in the atmosphere, the military has developed plans for high altitude, unmanned airships that could monitor everything that moves in a city and that would also be a wonderful replacement for satellite communications.

With such an abundance of industries calling on drones or UAVs, it was simply a matter of time and pressure before the FAA tackled the regulations that will allow the small and slow as well as the large and faster.

What The New Rules Will Make Possible
The first drone application that the FAA is expected to certify for use will be micro UAVs because they are a relatively low-risk for commercial aviation, according to Ed Herlik, managing partner of Market Intel Group, or MiG, a military/technology/aerospace consulting firm.

“Historically, the FAA has ignored radio-controlled airplanes. So radio controlled planes of less than 55 pounds were ignored by FAA by rule. They just declared that they were so small, as small as birds so they thought they were not a big enough threat,” Herlik said. “Now, the FAA is really saying your little bitty airplanes will be the first things we approve (for commercial use).”

The micro UAVs will most likely be tethered to an operator for law enforcement surveillance or aerial photos.

Herlik, who is a former U.S. Air Force flyer who eventually made his way up to Space Command, says that although micro UAVs will present a rather simple and cost-effective technology that will benefit many while not providing much of a threat, those who are thinking of operating Predators domestically are fooling themselves because of the hefty operational price tag.

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