- The Washington Times - Monday, December 30, 2013

Drones are one step closer to becoming commonplace in American skies, but analysts fear that bureaucratic red tape still may slow the next aviation revolution and could cause the U.S. to fall behind international competitors.

The Obama administration Monday made the long-awaited announcement of six drone test sites — including one to be operated by Virginia Tech — where the craft will undergo thorough trials over the next several years.

The announcement is a key development in the larger effort to safely integrate drones into U.S. airspace by September 2015, as Congress has ordered, but it was more than a year behind schedule with concerns that further delays may be on the horizon.

While applauding the news, specialists fear that the slow wheels of government — the Federal Aviation Administration in particular — could put the brakes on the drone revolution and the economic benefits it would bring.

“The agency is really playing catch-up. With respect to today’s announcement, that’s just the starting point. It’s not yet clear when those test sites will be operational. The estimate is six months, but there may be reason to doubt that,” said Brendan Schulman, special counsel at the New York City law firm Kramer Levin, which launched a “practice group” this month dedicated to drones and related industries.

“What we’ve experienced the past several years is a lot of regulatory delay. In the meantime, other countries have moved ahead with permitting and embracing commercial use,” Mr. Schulman said. “Countries like Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom already have a framework for commercial use of drones. That’s where you’ll see companies going to do the work. That’s where you see investment dollars going.”

Still much to do

Congress has charged the FAA with figuring out how drones can share the skies with traditional aircraft, and the agency acknowledges that the task is complex and the workload is heavy.

In its Monday announcement, the FAA stated that the decision on test sites is part of a larger process of gathering information and conducting the research necessary to implement specific regulatory and legal frameworks for drones.

“These test sites will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation’s skies,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

That “safe introduction” is scheduled for September 2015, a date laid out by Congress in February 2012. The test sites are supposed to be up and running within six months and could be operational until 2017, according to the FAA.

Right now, drones are primarily the domain of the military, though police departments and other first responders are able to secure permits to operate the craft. The FAA also has granted permission to universities and other research-oriented institutions to fly drones.

The 2015 date refers to the commercial integration of drones, which may redefine American industries.

Farmers, media organizations, real-estate companies, energy firms and other sectors are expected to be among the top customers for drones, which will offer a multitude of benefits. Because drones do not require pilots or passengers, they are smaller and cheaper than helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft and do not put onboard lives at risk.

Before industries can take advantage, the FAA must construct a framework to govern what drones can do, where they can fly and what types of certifications operators must have, among other regulations.

Political issues

In the public’s eye, however, the more pressing matter is personal privacy. Many Americans see drones as the physical manifestations of a Big Brother culture that includes eye-in-the-sky cameras overhead at all times.

Revelations about the depth of government surveillance programs have only fueled fears that drones are the next step in an effort to watch everyone, all the time.

State and local governments have begun to address personal privacy through drone legislation. Such bills also have been introduced on Capitol Hill, but none has become law.

Lawmakers from states chosen for test sites said they were grateful to be on the forefront of aviation technology but recognize privacy concerns.

“I am confident the FAA, Congress and the state of Nevada can strike a balance between this opportunity and the development of privacy standards and safeguards that will guarantee the constitutional rights of Nevadans and Americans across the country,” Sen. Dean Heller, Nevada Republican, said after it was announced that his state will host a test site focused on operator standards, certification requirements and air traffic control procedures.

The FAA has addressed the issue by requiring strict privacy policies at each of the six test sites, but advocates warn that simply isn’t enough.

“We’re pleased the FAA has acknowledged the importance of safeguarding privacy in the testing areas where drones will be flying, but requiring test sites to have privacy policies is no guarantee that every site will put strong protections in place,” said Catherine Crump, a staff lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Someday, drones will be commonplace in U.S. skies and, before that happens, it’s imperative that Congress enact strong, nationwide privacy rules,” she said.

In addition to Virginia Tech, which will operate drone test sites in Virginia and New Jersey, the other five locations announced Monday are the University of Alaska, the Nevada state government, Griffiss International Airport in Rome, N.Y., the North Dakota Department of Commerce, and the Corpus Christi campus of Texas A&M University.

The winners were chosen from 25 applicants in two dozen states.