The U.S. drone industry wants government regulations for private and commercial use of the remote-controlled devices as a way to ensure airspace safety, the head of a trade group says.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is taking good steps toward "responsible" regulation of small drones, or flying unmanned vehicle systems (UASes), Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said Tuesday. Wynne praised the FAA, in the midst of a rule-making proceeding for small drones, for focusing on risks associated with irresponsible use, instead of attempting to ban specific technologies.
"We like risk-based, technology-neutral regulation, and we're arguing that regulation is extremely responsible for safe and responsible use," Wynne said during a discussion about civil drone regulations hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "We want to be a regulated industry."
Many technology industries resist regulation, but a regulated drone industry will create millions of dollars in economic activity and thousands of new jobs, Wynne said. Wynne's group, however, wants the FAA to allow some expanded uses of small drones, including nighttime operations and flights outside the line of sight of drone operators.
How regulations shake out may largely depend on the actions of drone users, said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
There may be a "huge clash" coming between the drone industry and government agencies trying to protect public safety, Stanley said. "This is an industry that's in the fetal stage of development, so small things that happen at this stage could have lifetime effects," he added. "If we see somebody put a gun on a drone and remotely start shooting people as a terrorist attack, that may steer things."
Wynne said he's concerned about drone users intentionally violating regulations. "Misuse is misuse, whether it's somebody who's had a little too much to drink at 3 o'clock in the morning, trying to impress their girlfriend and ending up on the president's lawn, or real malintent," he said.
The FAA received about 4,500 pubic comments in its small-drone rule-making proceeding, as of Friday, the comment deadline, noted Robert Pappas, special rules coordinator of the agency's UAS Integration Office. In addition to the rule-making, the FAA is working as fast as it can to approve commercial drone requests before the rule-making is final, he said.
As of last Friday, the FAA had approved 235 exemptions for drones to the agency's airworthiness certificate rules.
In addition to commercial regulations, the U.S. government needs firm rules for law enforcement agencies using drones as surveillance tools, the ACLU's Stanley said. Drones have "very powerful" potential surveillance uses, he said. Aerial surveillance of cities on manned aircraft is already happening, and it's likely coming to drones, he said.
Aerial surveillance allows police to know "where you work and where you live, but also what friends and lovers you might be visiting, at what hours, what kinds of religious, political, sexually oriented establishments or meetings you go to," he said. "Unfortunately, we do have a long record of law enforcement giving into temptations to collect everything all the time about everybody, just in case somebody engages in wrongdoing."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.