Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Drones over US Skies

So, continuing on my story below on drones being authorized for use in U.S. skies, and the recent printing/posting of several stories on the subject here and here I thought I'd write another article on the subject. Today I spoke to one of the 12 (yes, that's TWELVE) people responsible for issuing drone licenses for the States. Even with around 300 Certificates of Authorization (COAs) being issued so far (more than half for the west coast and Pacific airspace) there has only be ONE place in the entire country that has been issued authorization to fly over populated areas, and it's for local law enforcement (Mesa County, Colorado). The remainder of authorizations granted have been for non-populated areas, primarily for use in tracking forest fires, finding lost people, surveying endangered species (which occurred just last week in Alaska according to my source).

This story from Apr 23rd that says Seattle cops have gotten permission to use surveillance drones is missing some important facts. They have not, I repeat, not received authorization to fly the drones. They purchased them, a few officers have the pilot's licenses required to fly them (yes, in order to fly a drone in public air space you must have a commercial pilot's license; because you are potentially flying in the same airspace as normal air traffic), but they did not seek authorization from the FAA to fly them, so they were told to stop. Then the police department made a stink to the news about how the FAA denied them authorization. The thing is, they never applied for authorization. This is part of the rather lengthy list of requirements to request authorization (I'm waiting on the full list from my source, but figured I'd get this posted for now). Among them you have the requirement for a commercial pilot's license, and your craft has to be submitted for inspect by the Flight Commission to ensure it meets required safety standards. The authorization only lasts for a year (initial submissions can take as long as 60 working days, or about 4 months), then you need to resubmit every year (resubmission usually takes around 30 days, but recently spiked longer when the rules changed).

To add to the above, there are only going to be about 6 test sites around the country. A good number of universities and private companies are scrambling to put in their packages hoping to get on that short list. Also, something I did not even think about, but actually deals with one of my major worries... even if an agency gets authorization to fly in a certain area, they still need permission from the people who own the ground beneath that flight path in order to use the drone. On top of that, even agencies that receive authorization for drone use still require warrants issued by a judge in order to use them for surveillance. The list that ACLU-WA is seeking already exists for government agencies; under what circumstances they can be used, how long information can be kept, what can be collected, etc. have existed for years regarding intelligence gathering on foreign individuals and U.S. citizens. Even state governments and law enforcement have to abide by those rules, and they are constantly being audited.

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