UPDATE 20 April 2016: The Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act passed the Senate on 19 April 2016 by a vote of 95 to 3. The bill addresses drone safety and privacy issues, bolsters drone enforcement, and clarifies federal and local rules on using drones. 

If your eyes warily drift to an open window anytime someone mentions a drone, you’re not alone.

The devices’ frequent portrayals as vehicles for snooping in popular culture have created an aura of agility and stealth that is unwelcome in most people’s daily lives. However, despite popular consensus, privacy isn’t the issue, according to the experts; safety is.

Policymakers and public and private officials discussed how the federal government should regulate drones while promoting drone innovation at a public event in Washington, D.C. on 16 March 2016.

The event, titled “The Year Ahead in Drone Innovation,” addressed the pros and cons of setting rules at the federal and state levels, the effect new rules will have on commercial drone proliferation, the necessity for consumer safety and security, and the best way policymakers can help move drone services forward for consumers.

Regulation priorities

To alleviate peoples’ fears of privacy invasions, states have considered and passed various legislation regulating drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

For instance, some states have passed laws that limit what UAVs can do. California’s AB 856 prohibits UAVs from entering air space around privately owned properties in order to snap photos. Arkansas’s HB 1349 prohibits the use of UAVs to commit voyeurism. Michigan’s SB 54 prohibits the use of UAVs to interfere with someone who is hunting.

Other states have passed laws that call for specific UAV activity. For instance, Louisiana’s SB 183 regulates the use of UAVs in agricultural commercial activities and North Dakota’s HB 1328 provides boundaries for how UAVs can be used for surveillance.

However, many of these regulations don’t make sense, Lisa Ellman, a partner and co-chair of Global Aircraft Systems Practice at Hogan Lovells, said during the event. They tend to address privacy rather than safety issues, she said.

Unlike states, the federal government tends to focus more on safety issues when drafting policy, but it often moves at a slower pace than many innovators and companies would like to see.

Ellman called on the federal government, in particular the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), to work in tandem with industry to develop policies. Industry could share information on collision avoidance software, which can alleviate certain safety concerns, and geo-fencing programs, which can address privacy concerns by using GPS to define geographical boundaries, Ellman said.

The ultimate goal, Ellman continued, is to form a template of effective federal policy measures and share that template with state and local policy makers so that they can adapt it to their districts.

A Falcon Hover drone. Credit: USGS.

Public and private partnerships

The FAA relies on partnerships with private and public companies when setting new regulations, Bill Crozier, the deputy director of the Office of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration at the FAA, said during the event.

UAV technology is evolving at a rapid rate, he said. “What we’re able to do now we would never have envisioned a year or two ago,” Crozier said. Partnerships with innovators are necessary to keep up with demand for new regulations, he said, and the FAA tries not to hinder progress while prioritizing safety. The White House issued a memorandum along a similar vein in February 2015 that referenced UAVs already in use for scientific research and other activities.

For instance, beyond-visual-line-of-sight technology, which allows operators to control drones too far in the distance for them to see, is a major innovation that has already been used in the Arctic with FAA approval, Crozier said.

The Arctic drones are controlled by the University of Alaska, which has been mapping sea ice, monitoring marine life, and overseeing oil and gas infrastructure above the Arctic Circle for the past five years.

For future regulations that could expand approvals for many more drones, the FAA will build on what it learned from the Arctic drones, Crozier said.

Federal steps towards regulation

Rep. Stephen Knight (R-CA) introduced the FAA Leadership in Groundbreaking High-Tech Research and Development Act (Flight R&D Act) to authorize the FAA to incorporate the newest aerospace technology to increase aviation safety, security, and economic competitiveness on 11 February 2016.

The act ensures that the FAA successfully invests in research and development and calls on the FAA to tighten cyber-security and safely introduce Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) into the national airspace system. “Aviation research and development means more jobs and more opportunities for our small businesses to flourish,” Knight said in a statement.

Along a similar vein, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Commercial UAS Modernization Act, which amends the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The new bill was introduced on 13 May 2015 and discussed in a hearing on 10 March 2016.

The bill amends the 2012 act to allow an individual to operate a small commercial drone within the U.S. as long as the FAA receives proof that the drone owner has liability insurance for the drone; the owner has passed a test that assesses aeronautical knowledge; the owner has shown he can fly the drone in accordance with operating restrictions concerning visibility, air traffic control, and other conditions; and the owner has registered the drone.

The FAA opened its Unmanned Aircraft Systems Registration on 21 December 2015 to keep a register of people who own a drone that weighs more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams) and less than 55 pounds (25 kg). If the drone weighs over 55 pounds, it must be registered through the Aircraft Registry.

More recently, the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2016, which includes regulations on drones, passed the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on 16 March 2016.

“Passage of this bipartisan legislation is a win for airline passenger rights, advancing responsible drone usage, boosting the competitiveness of the aerospace industry, and making our skies safer,” Sen. John Thune (R-SD) said in a statement. “I look forward to considering these reforms on the Senate floor and building consensus with our colleagues in the House.”

The FAA reauthorization act includes an amendment by Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) to support the operation of drones by higher education institutions for research and educational purposes.

“It is important that Michigan’s students, researchers and educators have the ability to fly unmanned aircraft systems so they can not only work to advance these technologies, but can also get the training they need to ensure that the United States remains at the forefront of this growing industry,” Peters said in a statement.

By Elizabeth Goldbaum, GSA Science Policy Fellow