Drones are becoming more powerful and much cheaper at a rapid rate. (flickr photo)
By Robert Bradley
One of the upcoming battles in D.C. that will debate the appropriate scope of government power will not deal with the federal budget.
It will not address spending cuts, the debt ceiling, or the operating expenses of the federal government. Yet it may well have more direct implications for the daily lives of the general public. The battle will focus on the domestic use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), otherwise known as drones.
As you listen to the debate here are some things to consider:
- Current law: In February 2012, President Obama signed the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Under the Act, the FAA is charged with developing a plan for the successful integration of drones in the nation’s airspace by 2015.
The Act also required the FAA to select six test sites in different parts of the country for drone usage by the end of 2012. The Act also required the FAA to speed up the process by which it gives permission to governmental agencies to use drones. And the Act also required the FAA to accelerate the integration of drone use by private companies into the nation’s airspace.
- Questions on the central mission of the FAA: Currently, some members of Congress and representatives from industry groups are quite upset because the FAA has yet to select the six required test sites. The delay is partly due to the typical speed of operation of federal agencies, but also resulted from the lobbying efforts of groups like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Not only have these groups filed a number of FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests about the current domestic use of drones but also raised questions about whether the FAA should solely be concerned about safety issues in regard to the use of drones. These groups contend that the FAA’s mandate that extends to protecting individuals on the ground should include privacy concerns. This has generated discussion as to whether the FAA should consider privacy in picking the six test sites. Thus far, there has been no resolution to that question.
- Extent of federal involvement: Thus far, it is known that five federal agencies are directly involved with domestic drone usage. These include: the FAA, Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, General Services Administration, and the Air Force.
What is not known is: how are drones being funded and purchased?; what data is collected by drones and how long is it stored?; who can access drones and the data that they can collect?; and what policies govern the current domestic use of drones? There are reports that indicate that drones are being used now for border patrol, counterintelligence, vulnerability assessments, crime prevention, and disaster response. It is also known that the FAA has issued hundreds of certificates of authorization for the utilization of domestic drones to local, state, and federal agencies.
- Drone technology: Currently, drones range in size from those that are the size of jetliners to others that have a wingspan of a few inches and weigh less that an AA battery. They can fly from altitudes of several thousand feet to a few feet off the ground.
The surveillance capacities of these drones includes night vision, facial recognition, and coordinated imaging that groups images from multiple drones into a one video stream that allows a single operator to watch an entire city at the same time. If not already available, drones will soon have the capacity to see using radar technology through solid material and follow human targets inside buildings.
Drones are becoming more powerful and much cheaper at a rapid rate. Soon, if not already, they could be in the air above many American communities. How will people respond to what might become an unparalleled intrusion into their private lives?
Bob Bradley is solely responsible for the opinions expressed above. These opinions do not necessarily reflect those of WJBC, Radio Bloomington or Cumulus Media staff or management.
Bradley was a full-time professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University where he has been since 1982. He has received several recognitions including: Carnegie Scholar for Civic Engagement, Constitution Trail Friend of the Year, and Faculty Star distinction by ISU Athletics. He dearly loves his wife, Reenie, of more than 25 years, and his daughter, Erin. He is an avid reader, devout sports enthusiast, gardener, golfer, and bird watcher.