The chief of the Federal Aviation Administration predicted Thursday that U.S. airspace could be crowded with as many as 7,500 commercial drones within the next five years, as he unveiled a long-awaited regulatory blueprint that seeks to protect Americans' privacy while requiring testing for law enforcement and private companies seeking to operate unmanned aerial vehicles.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said his agency would set up six sites across the country to test drone operators, but cautioned that there could be delays for those looking to obtain certificates to operate unmanned aircraft once the regulatory guidelines are in place. He said ensuring safety in increasingly congested skies was his agency's top priority.
"We must fulfill those obligations in a thoughtful, careful manner that ensures safety and promotes economic growth," Mr. Huerta said in a speech to aerospace industry executives.
The FAA's announcement is the latest step in the march toward transitioning drones from the military use in the war on terrorism that made them famous to civilian applications that can range from collecting survey and weather data to assisting rescues and law enforcement operations.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems, the leading trade group for the nation's private-sector drone operators, estimated this year that the commercial drone industry will create more than 100,000 jobs and generate more than $82 billion in economic impact over the next 10 years — if the government moves quickly to establish workable operating regulations and safeguards.
The impending boom has raised concerns among privacy advocates about how and where drones might be used to collect data. The FAA is requiring future test sites to develop privacy plans and make them available to the public. The policy also requires test site operators to disclose how data will be obtained and used.
"Make no mistake about it, privacy is an extremely important issue and it is something that the public has a significant interest and concern over and we need to recognize as an industry that if we are going to take full advantage of the benefits that we are talking about for these technologies we need to be responsive to the public's concerns about privacy," Mr. Huerta said.
Christopher Calabrese, American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel, told The Washington Times that while the FAA's requirement for public disclosure of data and retention policies are needed and welcome, the safeguards do not go far enough.
"It's crucial that as we move forward with drone use, those procedural protections are followed by concrete restrictions on how data from drones can be used and how long it can be stored. Congress must also weigh in on areas outside of the FAA's authority, such as use by law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security, which have the ability to use drones for invasive surveillance that must be kept in check," Mr. Calabrese said.
Legislation has been introduced by Sen. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, and Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, California Democrat. If passed, this legislation would require law enforcement agencies to obtain warrants before using drones to collect surveillance data on U.S. soil. "People are really worried about drone use. You see it in a huge number of state bills and laws, and I think the FAA needs to understand that if they don't address privacy issues then drones are not going to be a useful technology," he said. "Privacy can't be swept under the rug."
Mr. Huerta told reporters after his address that there was not a fast-track application process for particular agencies — such as law enforcement — looking to apply for certification to operate unmanned aircraft.
"Our current policy provides for any public user that would like to apply for a certificate of operation to operate unmanned aircraft within national airspace, they are free to apply...," he said. "But I wouldn't say we have a particular priority one way or the other."
Mr. Huerta did allude to possible exceptions for law enforcement agencies to use small unmanned aircraft systems but stressed that the FAA was looking into how to streamline the application process in a way that ensures safe integration into the system and said approximately 80 law enforcement agencies already operate unmanned aircraft under special certificates of authorization.
The FAA released an integration road map and comprehensive plan on its website Thursday.
Both documents lay out steps for unmanned aircraft integration by 2015. Setting up test sites for unmanned aircraft is the next step on the path to integration, and bidding from states to host the sites has been spirited.
"By the end of the year, we plan to choose six test sites for civil unmanned aircraft. Congress required us to do so, and we need to make sure we use these sites to obtain the best data that we can," Mr. Huerta said.
The FAA has received 25 applications for test sights representing 26 states.
The drone industry, which has pushed the Obama administration to speed regulations to clear the way for more commercial uses, called the FAA's moves "an important step."
"From advancing scientific research and responding to natural disasters to locating missing persons and helping to fight wildfires, [drones] can save time, save money, and, most importantly, save lives," said a statement by Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems.
Mr. Toscano noted that the FAA's announcements were better late than never as the FAA has missed every deadline laid out for drone integration in the reauthorization act. However, they have had to cope with significant funding cuts from sequestration and government shutdowns. "Every day that we don't fly in national airspace, we lose between $27 to $30 million of economic revenue," he said.