The chief of theÂ Federal Aviation AdministrationÂ 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 Americansâ€™ privacy while requiring testing for law enforcement and private companies seeking to operate unmanned aerial vehicles.
FAAÂ AdministratorÂ Michael HuertaÂ 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 agencyâ€™s top priority.
â€œWe must fulfill those obligations in a thoughtful, careful manner that ensures safety and promotes economic growth,â€Â Mr. HuertaÂ said in a speech to aerospace industry executives.
TheÂ FAAâ€™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 forÂ Unmanned Vehicle Systems, the leading trade group for the nationâ€™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 â€” 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. TheÂ FAAÂ 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.
â€œMake 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 publicâ€™s concerns about privacy,â€Â Mr. HuertaÂ said.
Christopher Calabrese,Â American Civil Liberties UnionÂ legislative counsel, told The Washington Times that while theÂ FAAâ€™s requirement for public disclosure of data and retention policies are needed and welcome, the safeguards do not go far enough.
â€œItâ€™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.Â CongressÂ must also weigh in on areas outside of theÂ FAAâ€™s authority, such as use by law enforcement and theÂ Department of Homeland Security, which have the ability to use drones for invasive surveillance that must be kept in check,â€Â Mr. CalabreseÂ said.
Legislation has been introduced byÂ Sen. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, andÂ Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican, andÂ 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. â€œPeople are really worried about drone use. You see it in a huge number of state bills and laws, and I think theÂ FAAÂ needs to understand that if they donâ€™t address privacy issues then drones are not going to be a useful technology,â€ he said. â€œPrivacy canâ€™t be swept under the rug.â€
Mr. HuertaÂ told reporters after his address that there was not a fast-track application process for particular agencies â€” such as law enforcement â€” looking to apply for certification to operate unmanned aircraft.
â€œOur 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 applyâ€¦,â€ he said. â€œBut I wouldnâ€™t say we have a particular priority one way or the other.â€
Mr. HuertaÂ did allude to possible exceptions for law enforcement agencies to use small unmanned aircraft systems but stressed that theÂ FAAÂ 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.
TheÂ FAAÂ 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.
â€œBy the end of the year, we plan to choose six test sites for civil unmanned aircraft.Â CongressÂ required us to do so, and we need to make sure we use these sites to obtain the best data that we can,â€Â Mr. HuertaÂ said.
TheÂ FAAÂ 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 theÂ FAAâ€™s moves â€œan important step.â€
â€œFrom 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,â€ said a statement byÂ Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association forÂ Unmanned Vehicle Systems.
Mr. ToscanoÂ noted that theÂ FAAâ€™s announcements were better late than never as theÂ FAAÂ 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. â€œEvery day that we donâ€™t fly in national airspace, we lose between $27 to $30 million of economic revenue,â€ he said.