DOT Deputy Secretary: FAA’s Main Drone Priority Is Safety, Not Privacy

By Penny Starr | August 14, 2013 | 4:44 PM EDT

DOT Dep. Sec. John Porcari speaking at drone conference in Washington, D.C. ( Starr)

( -- Safety, not privacy, is the main priority of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regarding drones, John Porcari, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, said Wednesday at the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in Washington, D.C.

“Safety is at the heart of everything we do at the Department of Transportation,” which oversees the FAA, Pocari said, while acknowledging that the congressional mandate to incorporate thousands of drones into the National Air Space (NAS) system by September 2015 has placed privacy concerns “foremost in people’s mind.”

Porcari said the FAA is developing a “privacy framework” to address that issue at the six test sites it will select around the country by the end of this year. Testing and licensing commercial drones will be done through those sites.

When asked Porcari to expand on the privacy framework, specifically for drones used for surveillance, he did not answer the question directly.

“First of all, in terms of privacy, let me be clear on what our job, on what our role is,” Porcari replied. “Our job is safety and it’s to make sure that UASes (unmanned aircraft systems) are safely integrated into the National Air Space system.

“The privacy part of it is a legal matter at the local, state and federal level,” Pocari added. “But we recognize that if together we don’t tackle that issue successfully, that the technological progress won’t matter.”

Pocari said part of the application process for the 25 groups from 24 states that are vying for one of the FAA’s six testing sites is to “comprehensively think about and implement and describe the privacy practices.”

He called privacy concerns “a legitimate issue…one that we take very seriously. But it is one that for a safety agency is outside the normal lanes of safety.

"But we recognize we need to tackle it together,” he added.

Within five years, there will be thousands of drones in U.S. skies, according to the agency’s updated forecast. (See FAA 2013_Forecast.pdf)

“We believe that the civil UAS markets will evolve within the constraints of the regulatory and airspace requirements," a statement provided to said.

"Once enabled, commercial markets will develop and demand will be created for additional UAS and the accompanying services they can provide."

Visual intelligence sensor (in blue) inside a Neany, Inc.-designed drone. ( Starr)

In February, while soliciting applications for its six drone testing sites, the FAA also stated that it was asking for public comment on its privacy proposal for those sites listed in the Federal Register.

“Under the FAA privacy proposal each test site operator must ensure that its privacy policies are informed by Fair Information Practice Principles, a widely accepted framework of privacy principles at the core of numerous federal and state privacy laws,” the press release says.

“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.”