Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) –commonly referred to as “drones”– have been used in military operations across the globe to provide vital intelligence, and even perform aerial “predator missile” strikes. In addition to providing surveillance of the United States border, there are other non-military applications, including search and rescue, livestock monitoring, and wildfire mapping, just to name a few. Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t allow the use of unmanned aerial systems in U.S. airspace without a special certificate; however, that is changing.
The market for military grade technology is rapidly expanding. The L.A. Times reports that in September 2001, the military owned around 50 drones. Now it has nearly 7,500. So when, or rather if, these overseas wars wind down, the manufacturing companies of these “eyes in the sky” would like to see their market expanding for domestic purposes.
On February 14,President Obama granted their wish, by quietly signing into law the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which will provide $63.6 billion for the agency’s programs between 2012 and 2015. With twenty-three short-term extensions over the past five years, a long-term solution to FAA funding was desperately needed. However, there are some controversial provisions tucked away in the bill. Labor critics have stated their opposition to the anti-union provisions included in the legislation, but there are more pressing concerns that have gone relatively unnoticed.
The bill includes many directions for the FAA regarding the use of unmanned aerial systems over U.S. soil. The FAA will be required to simplify and speed up the process by which it grants permission for government agencies to operate drones. In addition, the FAA has been directed to develop a comprehensive plan to “safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into national airspace.” Civil drones mean those operated by the private sector, since it is nearly impossible for any non-government entity to receive the FAA’s authorization.
The only thing stopping the routine use of these aerial surveillance tools are the requirements imposed by the FAA for the authorized certificates. The proposed relaxation in restrictions will inevitably open the door to a boom of flying robots in the sky. Make no mistake, this is not science fiction. The FAA has predicted up to 30,000 drones in operation over the U.S. by 2020. The American Civil Liberties Union has warned that this legislation could severely undermine Americans’ privacy.
“Unfortunately, nothing in the bill would address the very serious privacy issues raised by drone aircraft,” Jay Stanley of the ACLU said. He concluded, “The bottom line is: domestic drones are potentially extremely powerful surveillance tools, and that power – like all government power – needs to be subject to checks and balances.”
In Katz v. United States, the U.S. Supreme court declared that individuals have no “expectation of privacy” in public places. In Florida v. Riley, they held that individuals on their own private property do not have a right to privacy from police observation from public airspace. So, what does the future hold, when federal, state, and local law enforcement all have the ability to spy on anybody they suspect a “threat to national security?” With the passing of the USA PATRIOT Act and other invasive legislation, the “surveillance state” is becoming more and more real. You don’t have anything to fear unless you have something to hide, right? Remember, UAVs are not like helicopters with spotlights: some drones are as tiny as a flying insect. You won’t see them – unless they want you to.