2014 has been a year of growing awareness in the media of the dangers posed by civil drones, while the drone lobby and entrepreneurs on both sides of the Atlantic continue to push regulators to relax current restrictions. It is likely that push will come to shove in 2015. Read more
Guest post by Ben Hayes and Chris Jones.
Today the Transnational Institute and Statewatch are jointly publishing a new report on the European Union and drones, entitled Eurodrones Inc. Our report examines the considerable economic and political support given to the drone industry by the European Union, which has now reached a level at which we can speak of an emerging EU drone policy based on two interlinked principles. First, an urgent need to develop and use drones in Europe for a wide and as yet unlimited range of purposes. Second, the various barriers – chiefly regulatory and technical – to the introduction and routine use of drones in EU airspace must be overcome. Read more
UN Drone Investigation to report in October
Perhaps likely to garner most column inches will be the report of Ben Emmerson, Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, to the UN General Assembly in New York on 25 October. Read more
A year of expansion was signalled in January when President Obama, flanked by an array of senior military officers, stood in front of the media at the Pentagon to announce a new US military plan. Entitled ‘Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense (pdf), the plan, aimed to shape the US military “in light of the changing geopolitical environment and our changing fiscal circumstances,” as Obama put it, was summed up by many as a future of ‘drones, special ops and cyber warfare’. As the document stated Read more
In an obscure working document, the European Commission has announced it is working on plans to open European civil airspace to unmanned drones by 2016. This follows the signing by President Obama earlier this year of the FAA Appropriations bill which mandated that US airspace must be opened to drones by 2015.
The European Commission (EC) plan was revealed in a Staff Working Paper published on September 4th 2012 entitled “Towards a European strategy for the development of civil applications of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems”.
The document summaries the conclusions of the year-long European Unmanned Air Systems Panel which began meeting in July 2011and recommends setting up a European RPAS [Remotely Piloted Air Systems] Steering Group (ERSG). The aim of the ERSG, writes Peter van Blyenburgh, President of UVS International, (the main European drone lobby group) on the UAVS Vision website is to “foster the development of civil RPAS by planning and coordinating all the activities necessary to achieve the safe and incremental integration of RPAS into European air traffic by 2016”.
Surprisingly – or not depending on your view of the inner workings of the EC – membership of the ERSG has already been decided and it has already met to begin its work before its existence was announced. The group is co-chaired by the EC’s Directorate-General Enterprise & Industry and Directorate-General Mobility & Transport. Other members include representatives of other EC directorates plus what it calls a whole range of “stakeholders”. These include industry bodies including UVS International, the main drone lobby group.
The ERSG has established three working groups and is planning to publish by December 2012 a “comprehensive roadmap” towards the integration of civil drones into European airspace by 2016.
The repercussions of the drone lobby’s success in forcing open US domestic airspace to unmanned drones by 2015 are beginning to be felt across the US as civil liberties groups and politicians wake up to the implications for safety and privacy.
An article on the Public Intelligence website asks the basic questions “Is it even logistically possible to operate thousands of pilot-less aircraft in domestic airspace?” The authors examine two basic practical problems with unmanned drones. Firstly how they tend to become “zombies” by losing their wireless data-link to the remote operator – and then crashing. And secondly how without ‘sense and avoid’ capability drones are unable to avoid other aircraft and cause mid-air collisions. In both cases the more drones that fly – and the FAA predict up to 30,000 drones will be flying in the US by the end of the decade – the more incidents of lost data links and mid-air collisions there will be.
While safety is rightly the primary concern, civil liberties issues are also seriously affected by the new legislation. Last week the co-chairs of the Congressional Privacy Caucus, Ed Markey & Joe Barton, wrote an open letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) pointing out the “potential for drone technology to enable invasive and pervasive surveillance without adequate privacy protection” and requesting information as to how the FAA were to address privacy concerns.
In particular the pair want to know
- What privacy protections and public transparency requirements has the FAA built into its current temporary licensing process for drones used in U.S. airspace?
- Is the public notified about where and when drones are used, who operates them, what data are collected, how are the data used, how long are they retained, and who has access to that data?
- How does the FAA plan to ensure that drone activities under the new law are transparent and individual privacy rights are protected?
- How will the FAA determine whether an entity applying to operate a drone will properly address these privacy concerns.”
A couple of days later an ‘op-ed’ piece in the Washington Post by two Brookings analysts also raised the privacy issue:
“The current legal framework with respect to observations from above by government is not particularly protective of privacy. Two of the most relevant Supreme Court cases, California v. Ciraolo in 1986 and Florida v. Riley in 1989, addressed law enforcement’s use of manned aircraft to perform surveillance of a suspect’s property. In both cases, the court held that observations made from “public navigable airspace” in the absence of a warrant did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
These precedents suggest, in a world in which UAVs will be inexpensive and plentiful, that government operators might have broad legal latitude to use them for surveillance. Non-government operators may have even fewer constraints regarding surveillance. And today’s cameras are far more capable than those of the 1980s and can acquire stunning high-resolution imagery from hundreds of feet away — imagery that can be processed using ever more capable computers.”
However, the op-ed’s authors, John Villasenor and Ben Wittes also make the not unreasonable point that given “the challenges the agency will face in safely providing for the operation of what may soon be tens of thousands of UAVs, operated by tens of thousands of people from unconventional flight locations… to broaden its already unenviable task, to include this hotly disputed field [of privacy] that lies far from its core competency, is a recipe for bad and technologically uneven outcomes that will satisfy no one.”
The consequences of allowing unmanned drones to fly within domestic airspace both in terms of safety and privacy are beginning to be apparent to all. That such a serious step should be taken in such a rush and under such pressure, simply because of industry lobbying is ludicrous. There needs to be a serious re-think, as well as an investigation into how companies with a vested industry were able to force through such a huge change with little apparent regard to the consequences.