Driven by privacy concerns, a growing band of states and communities across the nation have restricted or proposed restraints on unmanned aerial vehicle flights even before the burgeoning industry has taken off, changes advocates say must be balanced against the enormous growth potential for the industry.
The expectation that tens of thousands of UAVs will compete for airspace in the years ahead has spurred new or proposed laws designed to curb untethered surveillance of private individuals. Iowa City, Iowa, banned the use of aerial drones to issue speeding tickets. The states of Idaho, Illinois and Florida, banned with few exceptions the use of drones to conduct searches without first obtaining a warrant.
An Idaho senator used the phrase “high-tech window-peeping” to describe what the legislation was designed to prevent.
In Ohio, a number of bills designed to protect an individual’s privacy await lawmakers’ decisions.
“I think it’s just essential that we do a pre-emptive strike against these drones … that will not allow the drones to be misused just because they can,” said state Rep. Rex Damschroder, R-Fremont, a veteran flight instructor who introduced one House bill.
UAV advocates say individual privacy must be protected, but not at the expense of tapping into the enormous benefits the unmanned aerial machines can provide, from spotting forest fires and downed utility lines to mapping road construction and finding lost hikers.
Drones have already been called to the front lines domestically above the massive forest fire at Yosemite National Park in California. They’ve scouted flooding damage in Colorado mountain towns, although commercial UAV operators who offered images of the devastation to Colorado first-responders were eventually grounded, according to The Denver Post.
Unmanned aerial vehicles weren’t intended to spy on people and have completed missions in conditions manned aircraft cannot, said Frank Beafore, executive director of the UAV manufacturer SelectTech GeoSpatial Advanced Manufacturing Facility in Springfield.
“We’re not talking about electro-optical sensors with birds built to go spy on people,” said Beafore, who vigorously defends the scientific and industrial use of UAVs. “We’ve got a good story to tell that these things are not spy-bots.”
The Federal Aviation Administration has predicted 30,000 drones could be in the skies within two decades. UAVs have the biggest market potential in agriculture, forestry and industry, Beafore said.
Ohio, which touts a public and private aerospace infrastructure few states can match, has a large stake in the debate. It has joined with neighboring Indiana in a national competition to win one of six FAA test sites to integrate drones into manned civilian airspace by 2015.
Last week, Sinclair Community College announced two business partnerships that could give Dayton a leg up in the national sweepstakes and also lead to job growth in the emerging field. The agreements, with Woolpert of Beavercreek and Altavian of Gainsville, Fla., could put the region on the map as a leader in developing UAV (otherwise known as UAS for Unmanned Aerial Systems) platforms and remote sensing work for mapping and other uses.
Integrating drones into the nation’s skies could create 2,700 jobs and make a $2.1 billion impact in Ohio by 2025, according to an Association of Unmanned Vehicles Systems International study — an estimate some observers have called conservative.
Nationwide, the study predicts more than 100,000 jobs could be created in the UAS industry over the same time, with an $82 billion impact.
Rules of the sky
Along with state legislatures, a grass-roots movement to regulate drones and surveillance has taken root in some cities.
In Iowa City, StopBigBrother.org launched an initiative that led to a ban of red light cameras, license plate recognition systems and drones for traffic enforcement, even though the city had no proposal to fly drones.
“The fact that drones could be used for traffic surveillance and issue speeding tickets was enough for us to add it to our initiative,” said Maratha R. Hampel, an Iowa City resident and a co-founder of StopBigBrother.org. “They could fly over people’s back yards and properties and there could be people out sunbathing.”
Some advocates and law enforcement officials say the fears are misplaced.
“People who are fearful of invasion of privacy such as license-plate readers and the (red light) cameras, if they are not violating the laws, why should they be worried?” asked Robert A. Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association. “They should support being safe and secure in their homes and on the roadways.”
The association would likely support the future use of UAVs as a traffic enforcement tool, he said.
“If it can be unmanned and do the same thing, I’m not sure we would oppose that because it would just be an extension of what we do now with manned aviation,” Cornwell said.
UAVs could be put aloft to find a missing child, respond to a drowning scene, or help marijuana eradication efforts, he said.
The FAA has granted, through certificates of authorization, some law enforcement agencies and universities permission to fly UAVs in confined flight areas and conditions.
Most UAVs are small, often similar in size to radio-controlled airplanes, and must be flown within the line of sight of an operator, officials said. The FAA has not yet approved rules for commercial UAVs flown for profit. As of mid-Feburary, the agency reported 327 active certificates of authorization. Sinclair Community College and the Air Force Research Laboratory fly UAVs for research and development.
Earlier this year, the city of Dayton backed off a proposed $120,000 contract with a Xenia company to fly manned aircraft equipped with high-definition cameras to monitor high-crime hot spots. The concept of an eye in the sky monitoring individual behavior raised concerns.
Joel R. Pruce, a University of Dayton post-doctoral professor in human rights studies, said the concerns, which included a lack of citizen oversight, transparency and protections against abuse, were legitimate.
“We believe that if you want to be on the forefront of technology, that you have to be on the forefront of smart, forward-thinking policy that protects individual rights,” Pruce said.
He also cautioned that the surveillance could be used inappropriately to target neighborhood back yards or minority communities.
“I think there are big considerations when there is collecting huge amounts of data,” he said.
Ross McNutt, president of Persistent Surveillance Systems, the Xenia company involved in the Dayton contract, said the company’s manned aerial surveillance program has strict privacy policies and has tracked areas where major crimes have been reported.
The aerial investigation technique has solved crimes in communities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Compton, Calif., he said.
“All we’re doing is supporting investigations and helping solve crimes that otherwise would not be solved,” he said.
ACLU works with state lawmakers
The American Civil Liberties Union has worked with state lawmakers across the country to enact drone privacy restrictions, including in Ohio.
“Our bottom line on this one is you need to put privacy protections in place to ensure we can take advantage of drone technology without becoming a surveillance society,” said Allie Bohm, an ACLU advocacy and policy strategist.
“Our biggest concern is that they are not used for pervasive mass surveillance for the routine blanket monitoring of our public places,” added Jay Stanley, an ACLU senior policy analyst.
In a state-by-state legislative battle, the Association of Unmanned Aerial Systems International in Arlington, Va., has lobbied against restrictive bills. By AUVSI’s count, nine states have passed “anti-UAS” laws, while bills in 19 states have been defeated. Legislation in eight states, including Ohio, remain “in play,” according to the organization.
AUVSI supports the integration of unmanned air systems in a “safe and responsible manner” while safeguarding privacy, said Mario D. Mairena, an organization spokesman.
An Ohio Senate bill would strictly regulate a government agency’s acquisition and use of a drone and collection and disclosure of information. It would prevent law enforcement use of a UAV without a search warrant, in most cases, and ban arming drones with weapons.
“It’s such a new technology, I wanted to get ahead of it … and protect the government from themselves and protect the citizens from the government just so abuses don’t happen,” said state Sen. Kris Jordan, R-Ostrander, who worked with the ACLU and other “liberty-minded groups” to draft the Senate bill.
A less restrictive privacy bill in the House would require police to obtain a search warrant prior to a surveillance operation, with exemptions granted to prevent a terrorist attack, or for “swift action” to prevent harm to life, serious property damage, forestall the escape of a suspect or the destruction of evidence, among other provisions.
Damschroder, the House bill’s author, said he closely watched public disclosures this summer of federal agencies spying.
“I was following the news quite a bit this spring and summer and saw many instances of government intrusion into our private lives,” he said. “There’s a reasonable expectation of privacy that I think has been violated by the federal government.”
Among other reports, the FBI had clearance from federal aviation officials to fly at least four drone surveillance operations over the United States since 2010, according to The Washington Post.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has six drone helicopters and the Drug Enforcement Administration has “two robotic miniature helicopters,” the newspaper reported.
The Department of Homeland Security has flown large surveillance drones along U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico, the newspaper said.
NBC News reported in March the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has lent a Predator drone to local law enforcement agencies on occasion for missions unrelated to border patrols. In 2011, police in North Dakota called in a Predator drone to fly over the property of a man suspected of stealing cattle, NBC reported.
“The drones are coming whether we like it or not, but they have to be regulated appropriately,” Damschroder said. “This is not anti-drone; this is the proper use of drones. We want to get the dialogue going before rather than after the fact.”
Ohio DOT uses small drone
At least one state agency in Ohio has a drone. The Ohio Department of Transportation flies a small UAV, typically below 200 feet, to map places in need of bridge or road repairs, said agency spokesman Steve Faulkner.
“It’s something that we think is a valuable resource to have at our fingertips right now,” he said.
State Rep. Rick Perales, R-Beavercreek, a leading aerospace advocate in the state, said Damschroder’s bill is a common-sense measure similar to the rules law enforcement must follow when flying manned aircraft. He said he does not anticipate that bill would hurt the state’s chances to snare an FAA test site for UAVs.
Even so, he said, the Dayton Development Coalition will work with the University of Dayton School of Law to explore concerns about UAVs and privacy.
In an email, state Sen. Chris Widener, R-Springfield, said both bills are premature.
“We as state legislators should rely on the experts at the Governor’s new office of UAS operations to request statewide legislation if necessary to make our combined Ohio-Indiana proposal to the FAA a successful one,” wrote Widener, a member of the Workforce and Economic Development Committee. “We need the jobs the UAS industry has to offer in Ohio, to combine with our other state assets like Wright-Patterson and NASA.
“I don’t believe that office (of UAS operations) has requested any legislation at this time,” he added. “Privacy is a central issue we want to study in Ohio through this new office, and without their recommendation, bills introduced now are premature to the process we are trying to win and jobs we are trying to create.”
The Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association opposes the bills, calling both too restrictive, Cornwell said.
Dayton Development Coalition’s Maurice “Mo” McDonald, executive vice president of defense and aerospace, said the legislation might have a negative impact on the FAA decision on naming test sites, but he’s confident the bills wouldn’t derail the Ohio-Indiana bid.
The state’s aerospace resources merit strong consideration, he said.
“We want to make sure we put the strongest proposal that we could and we think we have a good chance of being selected,” he said.
Region a UAV development leader
The Dayton region is a hotbed of UAV research and development, manufacturing, data analysis and military acquisition.
The Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base has a wealth of research on micro UAVs, sensors and advanced materials, and colleges and companies in the region have invested in research and development and manufacturing and flight testing.
The Ohio-Indiana Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems Center and Test Complex is located in Springfield. NASA selected a Dayton nonprofit to manage a two-year, competitive fly-off to develop UAV technologies.
To prepare a UAV-ready workforce, Sinclair Community College will invest up to $4 million in education programs. The college flies UAVs out of Wilmington Air Park under a certificate of authorization.
“This is an emerging market for us, but we think it’s a calculated risk for us,” said Deborah L. Norris, the college’s vice president of workforce development and corporate affairs. “We feel with community alignment and economic development possibilities, it’s worth it.”
Even so, privacy is a topic explored at Sinclair in a UAV course, she said.
“With any kind of emerging industry, there are always going to be issues that we as a society need to deal with,” she said. “I think that we just always want to be cautious and I think in this emerging industry there’s a good deal that can come from UAS.”