FAA Has Authorized 106 Government ‘Entities’ to Fly Domestic Drones

July 20, 2012 - 1:23 PM
Boeing Phantom Eye, drone

The Boeing Phantom Eye is a drone designed to remain aloft for days. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - Since Jan. 1 of this year, according to congressional testimony presented Thursday by the Government Accountability Office, the Federal Aviation Administration has authorized 106 federal, state and local government “entities” to fly “unmanned aircraft systems,” also known as drones, within U.S. airspace.

“We are now on the edge of a new horizon: using unmanned aerial systems within the homeland,” House Homeland Security Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Michael McCaul (R.-Texas) said as he introduced the testimony.

“Currently,” said McCaul, “there are about 200 active Certificates of Authorization issued by the Federal Aviation Administration to over 100 different entities, such as law enforcement departments and academic institutions, to fly drones domestically.”

At his panel’s Thursday hearing, McCaul showed a map of the United States with markers indicating the locations where--as of April--government entities had been approved by the FAA to fly drones.

“The number of recipients since that time has increased,” McCaul noted.

GAO testified that the FAA’s long-term goal is to permit drones to operate in U.S. airspace “to the greatest extent possible.”

The proliferation of domestic drones, GAO said, raises a number of issues, the first of which is the right to privacy.

“First is privacy as it relates to the collection and use of surveillance data,” Gerald L. Dillingham, GAO’s director of Physical Infrastructure Issues told the House Homeland Subcommittee on Oversight on Thursday.

“Members of Congress, civil liberties organizations and civilians have expressed concerns that the potential increased use of UAS in the national airspace by law enforcement or for commercial purposes has potential privacy implications,” said Dillingham. “Currently, no federal agency has specific statutory responsibility to regulate privacy matters relating to UAS. Stakeholders have told us that by developing guidelines for the appropriate use of UASs ahead of widespread proliferation could in fact preclude abuses of the technology and negative public perceptions of the potential uses that are planned for these aircraft.”

“The Federal Aviation Administration authorizes military and non-military (academic institutions; federal, state, and local governments including law enforcement entities; and private sector entities) UAS operations on a limited basis after conducting a case-by-case safety review,” Dillingham said.

“Only federal, state, and local government agencies can apply for a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA); private sector entities must apply for special airworthiness certificates in the experimental category,” Dillingham said.

“Between January 1, 2012 and July 17, 2012,” said Dillingham, “FAA had issued 201 COAs to 106 federal, state and local government entities across the United States, including law enforcement entities as well as academic institutions.”

In addition to authorizing 106 government agencies to operate drones, the FAA has authorized four private manufacturers to fly drones.

“Additionally, FAA had issued 8 special airworthiness certifications for experimental use to four UAS manufacturers,” said Dillingham.

“Presently, under COA or special airworthiness certification, UAS operations are permitted for specific times, locations and operations,” said Dillingham. “Thus it is not uncommon for an entity to receive multiple COAs for various missions.”

The subdivision of the Department of Homeland Security that includes the Border Patrol currently operates 10 drones.

“According to DHS officials,” Dillingham said “Customs and Border Protection (CBP) owns ten UAS that it operates for its own missions as well as for mission in conjunction with other agencies.”

So far, FAA has approved drone use by 12 state and local law enforcement agencies, but many more are interested in beginning to use drones.

“According to recent FAA data,” Dillingham testified, “12 state and local law enforcement entities have a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) while an official at the Department of Justice said that approximately 100 law enforcement entities have expressed interest in using a UAS for some of their missions."

Dillingham noted in his written testimony that the proliferation of drone use raises issues under the 4th Amendment, which protects the right of individuals to be free from unreasonable searches.

“Concerns include the potential for increased amounts of governmental surveillance using technologies placed on UAS as well as collection and use of such data,” Dillingham testified. “Surveillance by federal agencies using UAS must take into account associated constitutional Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

According to the GAO, the FAA would like to permit widest, safest use of drones. “FAA’s long-range goal is to permit, to the greatest extent possible, routine UAS operations in the national airspace system while ensuring safety,” Dillingham said.

He also noted that law enforcement officials had indicated drones would be a particularly cost effective tool for police work, costing about the same as a traditional police patrol car.

“Domestically, state and local law enforcement entities represent the greatest potential use of small UAS in the near term because small UAS can offer a simple and cost effective solution for airborne law enforcement activities for agencies that cannot afford a helicopter or other larger aircraft,” Dillingham testified.

“For example,” he said, “federal officials and one airborne law enforcement official said that a small UAS costing between $30,000 and $50,000 is more likely to be purchased by state and local law enforcement entities because the cost is nearly equivalent to that of a patrol car.”