Two weeks ago 11 street signs appeared in Brooklyn, NY. One read “ATTENTION: Drone Activity in Progress.” The signs were fake. They were posted by an Army veteran turned “radical art student” who remains anonymous.
The message was clear. Over the past decade expectations of privacy have diminished. In fact, most people either did not notice the signs or did not care.
The artist’s warnings are prescient because drones are coming to a neighborhood near you. And their use will vary. Privacy (see 1, 2, 3, 4) – or it’s erosion – may be of greater concern in the long-term, but safety may be compromised immediately.
Days ago Congress passed a bill (Senate 75-25; House 248-169), which will require the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to make drone flights available domestically. The bill awaits the President’s signature. Once signed – and it is expected to be – the bill will mandate the FAA to prepare US skies for unmanned aviation by September 2015.
The FAA estimates that 30,000 drones could operate domestically by 2020.
Congress authorized an unprecedented $63.4 billion to the FAA over four years. $11 billion of which will fund the nation’s air-traffic control system modernization. The system currently uses ground-based radars. It would switch to GPS satellites instead. Modernization has its benefits for the airline industry. Commercial and cargo pilots could set better routes and fly more directly, saving on time and fuel.
Without a GPS-based system, operating drones would be difficult. And there are other challenges. As the Air Line Pilots Association, a body that represents 53,000 pilots, points out “safety issues such as training and certification of those flying unmanned aircraft” are still under question.
One reason drones have been so successful in military operations is because they are primarily used in uncontested airspace. They are not designed to operate in busy skies. Drones are unable to detect and avoid other aircraft. They will need to have this capability before operating domestically.
It is estimated that air traffic will grow by 50 percent over the next decade. And this doesn’t include thousands of drones. Many countries have adopted satellite-based technology. But the US, which accounts for more than a third of global air traffic, “has moved cautiously.”
The average American has probably never seen a drone, unless they live near the Mexican border where the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) uses them. Or North Dakota where the Air Force helped local police track down three suspects using a Predator B drone.
Some police departments are already using drones. But currently their use is restricted to public agencies and some of their private partners. Drone use is also limited by size and altitude (below 400 feet). They don’t fly near cities. You sure won’t see one over Brooklyn. The legislation also orders the FAA to “expedite the process through which it authorizes the use of drones by federal, state and local police and other agencies.”
The FAA has already granted “295 special permits for researchers, law enforcement, and the military to operate drones in the US.” And last year a defense bill ordered the FAA to “create six test sites where unmanned flights can operate beside regular aircraft.”
Unmanned systems will quickly expand to other industries. They are great for monitoring pipelines, ports, or power lines. Thus utility and power companies would adopt them immediately. The agriculture industry could use them. They are obviously great for surveillance and emergency response. Google would adopt drones for their Street View program. It won’t be hard to get to 30,000 drones when everyone from the local police department to the tech start-up will want one.
Securing the skies
Balancing security and privacy is a debate we will have for decades. Privacy will dominate headlines as drones begin to hover overhead. So will the threat of terrorists using them. But general safety – caused by accidents and not terrorists – needs to be actively considered and discussed. Drones are not foolproof. In fact, they are accident prone.
Who will train the pilots? Program future autonomous systems with routes and accident avoidance techniques? Manage the air traffic control system? Differentiate between corporate drones and those flown by the government or by enthusiasts?
Considering their expected volume, it is safe to assume most drones will be flown by amateurs and not trained pilots. The FAA’s timeline to modernize is ambitious. It is reassuring to see that benchmarks are set and frequent updates to lawmakers are mandated under the new bill. But these conciliatory measures may not be enough. The industry and government needs to make sure things work before drones and planes meet unexpectedly.
Also, in a few years, slow down when you see the “Speed limit enforced by aircraft” sign. They are not kidding.