By: Gary Martin and Viveca Novak
Are unmanned aircraft, known to have difficulty avoiding collisions, safe to use in America’s crowded airspace? And would their widespread use for surveillance result in unconstitutional invasions of privacy?
Experts say neither question has been answered satisfactorily. Yet the federal government is rushing to open America’s skies to tens of thousands of the drones – pushed to do so by a law championed by manufacturers of the unmanned aircraft.
The drone makers have sought congressional help to speed their entry into a domestic market valued in the billions. The 60-member House of Representatives‘ “drone caucus” – officially, the House Unmanned Systems Caucus – has helped push that agenda. And over the past four years, caucus members have drawn nearly $8 million in drone-related campaign contributions, an investigation by Hearst Newspapers and the Center for Responsive Politics shows.
Flood of applications
The Federal Aviation Administration has been flooded with applications from police departments, universities, private corporations and even the celebrity gossip site TMZ, all seeking to use drones that range from devices the size of a hummingbird to full-size aircraft like those used by the U.S. military to target al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and elsewhere.
Domestic use of drones began with limited aerial patrols of the nation’s borders by Customs and Border Patrol authorities. But the industry and its allies pushed for more, leading to passage of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, signed into law Feb. 14. The law requires the FAA to fully integrate the unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, into national airspace by September 2015.
“These timelines are very aggressive,” said Heidi Williams, a vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, one of the stakeholders taking part in a working group put together by the FAA to help develop a regulatory plan. “These issues are very complex, and we have a long way to go.”
Many potential uses for unmanned aircraft, which are cheaper to operate than piloted planes or helicopters, have been identified. Among them: monitoring pipelines and power lines, finding lost hikers, surveying crops, and assessing environmental threats and damage from natural disasters. The FAA has predicted that 30,000 drones could be flying in the United States in less than 20 years, sharing space with commercial, military and general aviation.
Major safety issue
An FAA official, who spoke on background, said “one of the main safety issues” with drones is lack of ability to “sense and avoid other aircraft.”
A September report by the Government Accountability Office identified the same concern: “Obstacles include the inability … to sense and avoid other airborne objects in a manner similar to manned aircraft.”
In addition, the GAO report said, “Concerns about national security, privacy and interference with Global Positioning System signals have not been resolved.”
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told a conference on drones earlier this year in Las Vegas that the agency is making progress working through the issues. FAA is working with “collision avoidance experts” from the Defense Department, NASA and private firms to determine what standards and requirements should be set.
Who gets the money
House members from California, Texas, Virginia and New York on the bipartisan “drone caucus” received the lion’s share of the funds channeled to lawmakers from dozens of firms that are members of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, Hearst and CRP found.
Eleven “drone caucus” lawmakers from California, where many aviation firms are located, received more than $2.4 million from manufacturers during the 2012 and 2010 election cycles, according to CRP tabulation of Federal Election Commission reports.
Eight Texas House members in the caucus received more than $746,000. And five caucus members from New York got more than $400,000 from companies connected to the business of unmanned vehicles. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said drone manufacturers contribute just as other interest groups do.
“We get contributions from media PACs, from teachers, from doctors and from a whole lot of companies that produce drones,” Cuellar said.
The House “drone caucus” was established three years ago. Senate lawmakers followed suit this fall.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., co-chairman of the fledgling Senate “drone caucus,” said the caucus would help frame future legislation because the use of drones “carries great potential – and great risk.”
Purpose of ‘drone caucus’
Cuellar also said the purpose of the House caucus is to educate other members on the need for and uses of drones for public safety, border enforcement, search-and-rescue and commercial uses. The global market for drones is expected to double in the next decade, from $6.6 billion to $11.4 billion, and could top $2.4 billion in the United States alone, said Philip Finnegan, director of corporate analysis with the Teal Group, an independent research group that studies the industry.
Growth in UAS technology and operations is encouraged by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, or AUVSI, which represents drone and systems manufacturers.
AUVSI firms have been far more generous to Republicans than Democrats when it comes to campaign donations. According to CRP analysis, GOP drone caucus members received 74 percent of the group’s donations.
In the House, the top recipient was Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Santa Clarita (Los Angeles County), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. He received $833,650 in drone-related campaign contributions.
McKeon and Cuellar are co-chairmen of the caucus.
Other California Republicans – Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Vista (San Diego County); Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands (San Bernardino County); Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine (San Diego County); and Ken Calvert, R-Corona (Riverside County) – each received more than $200,000 from drone firms.
CRP’s analysis also showed that companies with drone aircraft currently used by the military, but with potential civilian applications, were among the largest donors to caucus members.
The largest donors
Those firms include BAE Systems, which makes the Mantis and Taranis drones; Boeing Co., maker of the hydrogen-fueled Phantom Eye; Honeywell International, RQ-16 T-Hawk; Lockheed Martin, RQ-170 Sentinel; Raytheon Co., Cobra; and General Atomics, Predator.
Some lawmakers remain skeptical. Along with civil rights advocates, they worry about government eavesdropping, surveillance photography and other potential privacy violations.
“The drones are coming,” Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, shouted from the House floor as he warned of encroachment by government into the rights of citizens.
A North Dakota court upheld the arrest of a Lakota, N.D., farmer by a police SWAT team using information from a Customs and Border Protection Predator drone over the U.S.-Canadian border.
The June 2011 incident began when several cows found their way to Rodney Bossart’s 3,000-acre farm. He claimed ownership of the wayward bovines and allegedly brandished firearms at law enforcement officials.
During the ensuing standoff, a SWAT team received surveillance information from Customs and Border Protection, gathered from a high-flying Predator drone. That information was used to locate and arrest the farmer.
The Bossart case was apparently the first use of national security surveillance to aid the arrest of a U.S. citizen on nonterror-related charges. More such cases should be expected, said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Based on current trends, technology development, law enforcement interest, political and industry pressure, and the lack of legal safeguards – it is clear that drones pose a looming threat to Americans’ privacy,” Stanley said.
The Fourth Amendment governs when, where and how the government can gather information on an individual, including whether officials need a search warrant before acting. Courts have given the greatest protection to people when they’re in the privacy of their homes. For instance, in a 2001 Supreme Court case, the justices nixed the Interior Department’s use of thermal imaging to detect heat patterns coming from the home of someone suspected of growing marijuana indoors using lamps, saying it was an illegal search and required a warrant.
Reining in drone use
Outside a home’s walls, though, privacy rights decrease. Courts blessed an arrest after a flyover by police revealed marijuana growing in someone’s back yard.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Tenn., have crafted legislation to put a tight rein on drone use.
Privacy advocates note that not just the police, but individuals and commercial enterprises will be using the devices. TMZ’s application for a permit is an illustration. Paparazzi are already using small drones on the Riviera to shoot photos of celebrities in otherwise hard-to-access areas. TMZ “does not have a permit” yet, FAA officials said last week.
Texas’ Poe has offered another bill, which would ban private citizens from using drones to spy on other citizens and strictly limit law enforcement use of drones. “The Constitution limits eavesdropping, snooping and spying on American citizens,” Poe said.