An official with the Federal Aviation Administration reassured the public Wednesday that no armed drones will be permitted in U.S. airspace, but he acknowledged the agency can do little about privacy fears associated with the unmanned craft.
In an address to the drone-industry’s leading trade group, which is meeting this week in Northern Virginia, Jim Williams said existing rules already bar aircraft from using weapons and “we don’t have any plans of changing [those rules] for unmanned aircraft.”
“We currently have rules in the books that deal with releasing anything from an aircraft, period. Those rules are in place and that would prohibit weapons from being installed on a civil aircraft,” said Mr. Williams, who heads the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office, formed last year to shepherd drones into already-crowded American skies and integrate drone use with the manned-aircraft system.
The FAA has cited “privacy concerns” as one reason it has fallen behind the congressionally mandated integration schedule, but Mr. Williams said the agency actually can’t do much of anything about those fears.
“The FAA has no authority to make rules or enforce any rules relative to privacy,” he said. “We can ask [the industry] to take into consideration the privacy issue. … There aren’t any rules to date on that.”
More than a half-dozen bills have been introduced in Congress to address those Fourth Amendment and personal privacy issues. At least 11 states, including Virginia, are pursuing similar measures.
The drone industry desperately wants to turn public attention away from their use for warfighting and snooping, instead emphasizing how law enforcement, farmers, media organizations, firefighters and numerous others will benefit when drones become available for commercial use, which is set for September 2015.
Many people at the convention, sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, scoffed at the question about armed drones. Mr. Williams even seemed amused by it.
But while industry insiders aren’t focused on the dark side of drones, they acknowledge privately that reassuring the public is job No. 1.
“We have to sell the public that we’re responsible users” who won’t abuse drone technology, said Jeremy Novara, the chief operating officer of Vanilla Aircraft, an engineering firm and one of hundreds of companies jockeying for a spot in the drone boom.
Despite Mr. Williams’ promise that armed drones won’t patrol U.S. airways, there are still many unanswered questions.
When he was pressed on whether drones could, for example, be equipped with weapons when monitoring the U.S.-Mexico border, Mr. Williams ducked the question.
“Border patrol is the responsibility of [the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency]. I’ll let them answer that question,” he said.
The recent Senate confirmation hearings for CIA director nominee John O. Brennan also have turned the spotlight to drones and their weapons capabilities. Mr. Brennan was questioned about the administration’s use of drones to kill U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism.
Some lawmakers — including Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky — fear the federal government could assassinate Americans on U.S. soil, essentially skirting the court system and executing people without due process.
Mr. Brennan’s hearing was a “sea change” in the public debate about drones and brought the worst fears of the public to the surface, said Peter Singer, director of the Brookings Institution’s 21st Century Defense Initiative.
“The public perception of this technology is being shaped by 1 percent of its actual use,” he told the convention, reiterating that drones are and will be used for much more than assassinations and surveillance.
Whatever their uses, fitting them safely into American airspace will be difficult. Mr. Williams called it “the biggest challenge we’ve had in aviation in a long time” and a massive undertaking for the federal government.
But the hard work, Mr. Williams and many others believe, will be worth it. He compared the emergence of drones to the Wright brothers’ flight, the implementation of GPS systems, the invention of the jet engine and other monumental steps in the history of aviation.
Industry leaders believe they’ve only scratched the surface, and that it’s almost impossible to imagine what drone technology will look like in five or 10 years.
“You might liken it to post-World War I for manned aircraft — it’s in its infancy,” said Mike Francis, the chief of advanced programs at United Technologies Research Center, a company specializing in aerospace and other technologies.