The lagging federal effort to fully integrate drones into U.S. airspace is in danger of falling even further behind schedule.
A funding bill now before the Senate essentially would stop the process in its tracks by prohibiting the Federal Aviation Administration from moving forward until it completes a detailed report on drones’ potential privacy impact.
The report, called for in the Senate’s fiscal 2014 transportation appropriations measure, would be yet another hurdle in the FAA’s already complex, time-consuming drone integration initiative.
The agency has been charged by Congress to write rules and regulations allowing drones — now used primarily by the military, law enforcement and researchers — to operate commercially in U.S. skies by September 2015, but the industry fears that deadline is likely to be missed.
Requiring the FAA, which traditionally deals only with airspace safety and has little experience in writing Fourth Amendment protections, to craft a comprehensive privacy report would all but guarantee the date will be pushed back.
Leaders in the unmanned aerial systems sector warn that such setbacks will hamper American technological innovation and carry economic consequences.
“Privacy is an important issue, and one that deserves to be considered carefully. But further restrictions on FAA integration will only set back important progress,” said Ben Gielow, government relations manager with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the drone sector’s leading trade group.
“If we are not able to keep the integration on track, the U.S. could lose out on creating tens of thousands of jobs and undermine the growth of a new industry at a time when we need it most,” he said.
The Senate bill doesn’t explicitly call for the FAA to stop drone integration efforts, but it would establish a de facto moratorium by cutting off funding for the process.
A section of the legislation, put forward by Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, states that “none of the funds in this act may be used to issue regulations on the integration of unmanned aerial systems into the national airspace” until the privacy report is completed and presented to the House and Senate appropriations committees.
The Senate Appropriations Committee directed questions on the bill to Ms. Murray, who is chairwoman of the panel’s subcommittee on transportation. Her office did not return emails or calls seeking comment.
The House’s transportation funding bill does not include such language, and the Senate provision could be changed or dropped entirely in the coming months.
For now, however, the bill underscores the deep fear in Congress and among the American public that widespread drone use will be a serious blow to personal privacy.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said last month that she considers drones to be “the greatest threat to the privacy of Americans.”
Coming from Ms. Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, those words carry extra weight. She is intimately familiar with classified details of the National Security Agency’s data-collection programs and other efforts that, critics say, erode Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights.
Many other members of Congress, civil liberties groups, privacy advocates and others have said drones — increasingly small, undetectable and able to be equipped with state-of-the-art cameras and other monitoring equipment — pose real privacy threats.
AUVSI and other drone industry leaders agree that the issue must be addressed, and it’s already being tackled across the nation.
More than 30 states and a growing number of local governments have drafted regulations to govern what drones can do and what types of data they can collect.
At the federal level, however, many analysts question why Congress is placing the job in the lap of the FAA.
“The FAA should focus on ensuring the safety of our skies. Safety has always been the FAA’s mission, and we believe the agency should stick to what it does best,” Mr. Gielow said.
The FAA’s experience in writing drone privacy regulations has been limited. The agency has drafted privacy guidelines to be used at drone “test sites,” congressionally mandated locations where the craft will be put through a battery of tests in preparation for airspace integration by 2015.
While widespread, private-sector drone use still is years away, the FAA has begun to make exceptions.
On Friday, the agency issued two “restricted category type certificated” to a pair of unmanned aerial systems, the first step in allowing them to operate in U.S. airspace later this summer.
A “major energy company,” the FAA said, will be allowed to use a drone to survey ocean ice floes and migrating whales in Arctic oil exploration areas off the coast of Alaska. Unmanned systems also will be permitted to support emergency response crews for oil spill monitoring and wildlife surveillance over the Beaufort Sea.