While progressives in the U.S. have been right to pressure the Obama administration on its use of military drone strikes throughout the Middle East as part of a protracted global war on terror, the lesser-known ongoing integration of drone technology into domestic airspace may prompt a similar public outcry as ubiquitous drone surveillance by law enforcement agencies and corporations becomes the norm over US skies.
In just a couple of years, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates, thousands of civilian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could be operating in US skies as the administration continues to integrate drone technology into the National Airspace System (NAS) to comply with a federal law enacted last year.
The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 mandates that the FAA draw a comprehensive plan to define the standards of operation, certification, registration and other regulations of domestic unmanned systems to accelerate the systems’ integration into US skies. Presently, most types of UAVs largely are controlled and used by the U.S. military.
Domestic Commercial Drones
As part of this integration process, the FAA issued restricted category certificates to two private companies in July, allowing them to operate two designs for small drones commercially within U.S. airspace for the first time.
The U.S. military approved two commercial designs – Insitu’s Scan Eagle X200 and AeroVironment’s PUMA – allowing the FAA to issue the new certificate category permitting commercial aerial surveillance. Previously, a private corporation could operate unmanned aircraft systems only by receiving an “experimental airworthiness certificate” from the FAA.
According to an FAA spokesman, the experimental certificate came with restrictions the new “restricted category type certificate” does not. When granting an experimental airworthiness certificate, an FAA inspector had to examine every unmanned aircraft system if it was to be flown domestically. The experimental certificate allowed only for research and training purposes while specifically prohibiting “for hire” operations of unmanned systems.
Now, private companies granted this special certificate will be able to fly drones in U.S. airspace for purposes that will make them money. Under the certificate’s regulations, commercial unmanned aircraft systems must meet specified airworthiness requirements and can be used only for approved commercial functions.
“We’ve always looked at the market beyond the military as eventually adopting the technology. But, as you know, in many cases the government and military tend to be the early adopter technology that allows you to prove it out and build the volumes and do all that kind of stuff,” said Steve Gitlin in an interview with Truthout. Gitlin is the vice president of marketing strategy and communication for AeroVironment.
Other commercial uses for these smaller designs include agricultural applications, atmospheric and weather research, transport, infrastructure monitoring and broadcasting news events. Civilian drones could potentially perform such mundane tasks as package delivery and could become as common to the commercial sector as smartphones are now.
Insitu plans to let a major energy company use its recently approved Scan Eagle system for oil exploration in the arctic this summer, joining a growing number of North American energy companies looking into these small drone designs for oil exploration purposes as well as for the monitoring of pipelines.
For the past two years, the Pipeline Research Council International has been working with the American Petroleum Institute and the Interstate Natural Gas Association on drone research to develop unmanned aircraft for pipeline surveillance. But in addition to monitoring for leaks, companies such as TransCanada, BP, Shell and Enbridge are hoping to restrict “third-party intrusions,” which can be anything from unauthorized vehicles entering restricted areas around pipeline easements to environmental activists using nonviolent direct action tactics.
After 2015, the FAA will allow organizations and companies that don’t manufacture the drone designs to operate them commercially in U.S. airspace.
Private Citizens and Domestic Drone Technology
But in addition to major corporations, media activists also are beginning to look at the possibilities of domestic drones to broadcast live streaming coverage of protests and other actions in such a way that could provide greater transparency of police activity during political clashes, such as those that occurred in 2011 during the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Occupy live-streamer Tim Pool, now a producer with Vice Media, has been experimenting with a small radio-controlled quadcopter drone called the Parrot AR.Drone, which can be controlled from a tablet or smartphone. Pool hopes to lower the cost of media production for the individual by using drone technology to gather audio and visual content from the air.
“These things make it a lot easier for the average person to pick up the control and say, ‘OK, I can do this,’ whereas with something like the more expensive drones that have proprietary controllers, you have to learn how to fly those. The AR.Drone is an iPhone app. It looks like a video game,” Pool told Truthout. But he admits that in moments when events are breaking it becomes harder to fly a drone. “It’s difficult with all the ruckus, the police, with people running. There’s no way to predict what’s going to happen. It’s hard to take your focus away.”
Pool was on the ground in Turkey during the Occupy Gezi Park demonstrations, which protested an urban development plan to replace the park with a shopping mall. During the demonstrations, Pool witnessed the police forces there shoot down a DJI Phantom drone used by an accompanying journalist, whom he said was detained by police for hours afterward. He expects the same thing could happen in the US.
“Governments will be a bit behind in adopting drones for surveillance or quad-roters like this. I think we’ll see the private sector first. We’ll see private individuals filming major breaking news with their drones, hobbyists and eventually I know a lot of news organizations are researching drone potential. Once that gets legal they’ll start flying drones all over the place, and eventually the police will start filming with drones as well,” Pool said.
And he’s right – scores of law enforcement agencies are experimenting with domestic drone technology already.
Domestic Drones in Law Enforcement
Law enforcement agencies such as the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department, the Utah Highway Patrol and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department are among some of the dozens of agencies to seek a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA to operate their small drone designs, from Texas’ Wasp system To Mesa County’s Draganflyer X6.
The COAs restrict nighttime operations of the agencies’ unmanned systems and designate maximum altitude requirements and permitted airspace for operations. Since 2008, the FAA has approved at least 80 law enforcement agencies’ requests to operate civilian drones, according to The Associated Press.
The Miami-Dade Police Department (MDPD) received a COA from the FAA in 2012 to legally operate its Honeywell T-Hawk Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) for tactical emergency-response situations, such as a shooting standoff or hostage situation, according to Lt. Aviel Sanchez with the aviation unit of MDPD’s Special Patrol Bureau. The agency received two MAVs in 2009 as part of a Department of Justice grant.
The aviation unit’s drone can hover over a scene and comes equipped with a camera – but isn’t weaponized. “We are happy with the program as it stands and currently only wish to expand on the COA’s restrictions,” Lt. Aviel Sanchez told Truthout in an email message.
But it’s a lack of restrictions that have some concerned, because a COA doesn’t designate whether law enforcement should have a warrant before surveying a suspect with a drone, and other similar questions crucial to privacy advocates.
According to Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), it’s not just individual citizens who are concerned about protecting their privacy from law enforcement and corporations using civilian drones, but corporations and law enforcement agencies may share the same concerns.
“Not only will we see companies possibly monitoring activists, but we could see companies trying to place restrictions on how the activists can use drones to monitor the companies,” Lynch said.
Private citizens already have caught corporate wrongdoing with their recreational unmanned systems. One man who spotted a stream of blood flowing into the Trinity River in Oak Cliff, Texas while flying his recreational remote-controlled drone reported the scene to authorities, who then traced it back to a local meatpacking plant.
EFF is having conversations with lawmakers around the country about what kinds of regulations on domestic drones can best ensure privacy protections while not infringing on First Amendment rights, including requiring law enforcement agencies to have a warrant before they can attempt to survey a suspect with a UAV.
“This is a time when privacy will come head-to-head with First Amendment issues. If you look at news-media reporting, there’s quite a lot of leeway in what the media can cover in the United States,” Lynch told Truthout. “But drones will allow news-media photographers to get into areas that they might not easily be able to get into before, and that will really come up against privacy interests of citizens.”
And states are preparing for the widespread use of civilian drones. In fact, the incident in Texas helped garner support behind recent legislation in the state banning the use of UAVs except in specific law enforcement contexts. The legislation, House Bill 912, makes it a crime to use an unmanned system to collect video or photographs of private property without the consent of the property owner, but many say the legislation carries too many exemptions, which make it ultimately meaningless.
States Push to Regulate Domestic Drones as Industry Pushes Back
The Texas law is just one of many pieces of legislation placing restrictions on the use of domestic drones to be introduced in 43 states this year, passing in eight.
Many of these state-level bills seek to require search warrants for surveillance drones used by local police departments, and at least six states have required warrants. In 2013, Virginia put in place a two-year moratorium on the use of drones by law enforcement to develop more stringent guidelines.
Legislation restricting civilian drone use has passed in states such as Florida, Tennessee, Idaho, Montana and Oregon, but other states such as North Dakota have tried to pass laws that would ban weapons from domestic drones and have failed.
But the industry is pushing back against privacy restrictions and regulations on civilian drones, saying the restrictions will hinder job creation. In Maine, Gov. Paul LePage backed up the claim by vetoing a bill that would have required police to obtain a warrant before deploying a drone, citing concerns it would kill new aerospace jobs.
“We don’t support rewriting existing search warrant requirements under the guise of privacy,” Mario Mairena told the AP. Mairena is a government relations manager for the Virginia-based Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), an industry group. The group’s website boasts hundreds of corporate members, many of which are defense contractors. The group also has ties to the Unmanned Systems Caucus in Congress.
Whether or not requiring a warrant in law enforcement drone operations would kill jobs remains to be seen, but the integration of civilian drones into the NAS would create a considerable economic impact, to be sure. An AUVSI report estimates that that the integration of unmanned systems in the U.S. will generate more than $13.6 billion and create 74,000 jobs within the first three years.
But strong regulations of domestic drones in the states may prove especially important depending on what guidelines the FAA puts in place to integrate the technology into the national airspace by 2015, as some experts fear the susceptibility to co-option of unmanned systems by third-party operators could pose serious risks to domestic security.
Domestic Drone Weaknesses
Cyber warfare may prove to be the most enduring challenge for the FAA when it comes to ensuring guidelines that will protect Americans adequately as drone technology makes its transition into civilian life.
Peter Singer is the director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings Institute. He is the author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. According to him, the primary weakness of drone technology is many systems’ dependence on GPS signals and remote operation. Even military-grade drone technology can be co-opted, he said.
In December 2011, the Iranian Army’s electronic warfare unit brought down an American drone, the RQ-170 Sentinel, after it crossed into Iranian airspace. In Iraq in 2009, Iraqi insurgents were able to use $26 software to intercept the video feeds of US Predator drones in a manner “akin to a criminal listening in on the police radio scanner,” Singer told Truthout.
Most recently, a research team at the University of Texas was able to demonstrate successfully the spoofing of a UAV by creating false civil GPS signals that trick the drone’s GPS receiver.
“There aren’t easy answers to these other than good encryption requirements,” Singer told Truthout in an email.
The Texas research team hoped to demonstrate the dangers of spoofing early on in the FAA’s task to write the mandated rules for UAS integration in the national airspace, and the Department of Homeland Security invited the team to demonstrate the spoofing in New Mexico.
“Vulnerability to jamming and spoofing depends highly on the design of the aircraft and control systems and vary across differing architectures. Minimum system performance and design standards developed for civil UAS designs will address these vulnerabilities,” an FAA spokesman told Truthout.
Whether minimum standards for system performance will be enough to address the changing dynamic of cyber warfare, and for that matter, technology, remains a question, but it’s something the FAA and Homeland Security are examining as drone technology becomes more widespread in the US.