Senate committee wants FAA to report on UAS privacy issues

Groups that closely monitor the evolution of unmanned aircraft systems, including the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, have spotted some language in a bill making its way through Congress that would add another obstacle to the integration of UAS into the U.S. national airspace.

Last week, the Senate Committee on Appropriations added language to the 2014 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act that would require certain privacy concerns to be addressed by the Federal Aviation Administration before funds are released for UAS integration. The FAA was directed by the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 to integrate UAS into the national airspace by Sept. 30, 2015, and the group is currently working to establish six UAS test sites in accordance with that law.

In the committee’s report, it noted that UAS offer both potential for job growth and benefits in a wide variety of applications, specifically citing “law enforcement and border patrol, precision agriculture, wildfire mapping, weather monitoring, oil and gas exploration, disaster management and aerial imaging.”

However, it said expanded use of UAS by governmental and non-governmental entities poses risks to individual privacy.

“FAA has recognized the importance of addressing privacy concerns by requiring that UAS test sites have privacy policies in place before test flights begin,” the report notes. “However, as the FAA looks to integrate UAS into the national airspace, a more comprehensive approach to privacy may be warranted. The United States Constitution, Federal, and various State privacy laws apply to the operation of UAS, but in consideration of the rapid advancement of technology in this area, the Committee questions whether current laws offer sufficient protections to adequately protect individuals.”

The committee directed the FAA to collaborate with other federal agencies to evaluate the impact of broader UAS use on individual privacy and added language that prohibits the group from issuing final regulations on the integration of UAS into the national airspace until it submits a report detailing its findings with regard to existing privacy law and any potential gaps.

The committee was especially interested in any possible use and retention of personally identifiable information as well as recommend next steps for how to address the impact of widespread use of UAS on individual privacy. The FAA was directed to submit its report to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations within one year of enactment of the act.

Privacy concerns have loomed large in the public imagination since the discussion of increased domestic UAS use in the U.S. began, and this new requirement is obviously intended to address those fears. However, groups like AUVSI worry that this new language could put the September 2015 deadline for safe UAS integration in jeopardy.

“AUVSI is now actively working with industry allies on the Hill to ensure the language prohibiting the FAA from moving forward with rulemaking is removed or curtailed,” Ben Gielow, AUVSI government relations manager and general counsel, wrote on the group’s website. “To be clear, AUVSI does not oppose the language calling for a government report on UAS privacy issues, we a oppose requiring the FAA to further delay its rulemaking on integration.”

The bill now moves on to the Senate for consideration. Click here to read the complete bill and related committee report.

[ photo by Patrick A. Albright, courtesy of U.S. Army ]