Americans have become increasingly accustomed to the use of drones, unmanned aircraft, in military operations abroad.  However, if drones were flying through neighborhoods here in the US, it may raise new issues.  New regulations expected from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) may soon permit just that.  The FAA has historically limited civilian use of unmanned aircraft to recreational purposes.  However, in early February, Congress passed the FAA Reauthorization Act ordering the FAA to develop regulations on the testing and licensing of commercial drones by 2015.  These regulations, once issued, could open the door for private entities to use drones for a broader range of purposes.

Private interest in the use of drones has increased in recent years, as have government efforts to regulate it.  The LA Police Department has recently warned local real estate agents against using images of properties captured by drone-mounted cameras due to concerns about whether this use complies with federal regulations.  A drone hobbyist in Texas, who was using his unmanned aircraft for recreational purposes, recently crossed the line into using it for surveillance purposes when he spotted a river running red with blood, thereby triggering a criminal investigation of a nearby meat-processing facility for environmental crimes.  The FAA is primarily interested in maintaining the safety of our national airspace, and allowing private use of drones to continue without regulation could pose a hazard to other aircraft that may encounter a drone in their flight path.

The FAA’s regulations are expected to provide guidelines for testing and licensing drones.  Acknowledging the increasing popularity of drones by regulating their use instead of prohibiting it will not only provide for a safer airspace, but will also provide many businesses with unique opportunities to make or save money.  Civilian demand for drone use is wide ranging, including aerial photography, crop monitoring, advertising, communications, and broadcasting.  The energy industry, however, has much to gain from the use of drones and has been leading the charge in sanctioning private use of drones for commercial purposes.

Monitoring pipeline and drilling rigs with drones can save energy companies money and improve safety and operations.  These companies have hundreds of miles of pipeline to monitor for leaks and other hazards and currently employ helicopters to carry out aerial surveillance on a daily basis.  Substituting drones for the $300/hour helicopters could result in significant cost savings.  In addition, drones can be used to avoid dangerous situations that currently have costly solutions.  For instance, drones can be used to inspect drilling rigs instead sending employees up on expensive and hazardous scaffolding.  Drones can also be used to inspect facilities while they are in use, even if that situation may be dangerous for humans.  For example, basic crude processing plants, whose pilot flames can jump from 3 to 300 feet in a matter of seconds, must be shut down before people can approach the facility to assess its maintenance needs.  Drones can inspect the facility for maintenance issues while it is in operation, thus avoiding regular plant shut-downs and increasing timeliness of addressing maintenance concerns.

The FAA’s new regulations could provide opportunities to increase efficiency, save money, and enhance safety through the use of drones, but it will be interesting to see how Americans react to the use of what has traditionally be considered a military technology in their own back yard.

A. McKeithen

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2 Responses to Domestic Use of Drones

  1. Hunter says:

    I think Katie’s point about privacy rights is spot-on, particularly when you consider that expectations of privacy are often married to warrant requirements in the context of 4th Amendment search & seizure law.

    And speaking of private entities using drones, when do you think we will get our first taste of something like the Tacocopter (http://tacocopter.com/)? Although the Tacocopter itself has been outed as a hoax (e.g. http://www.latimes.com/business/technology/la-fi-tn-tacocopter-internet-hoax-20120328,0,3540109.story), increased civilian use of drones coupled with the currently booming food truck movement could lead to delicious results.

  2. Katie Kuhn says:

    There is a dynamic discussion occurring over the prospect of an increase in the private and commercial use of drones, much of it centered around the Fourth Amendment privacy concerns you raise. Some see this increased use as the evisceration of privacy rights. To combat any such doomsday effect, the ACLU issued a report that recommended implementing certain policies—including restrictions on usage and image retention, as well as requiring public notice—to help ensure society reaps the benefits of aerial surveillance technology without falling prey to its “darker potential.” Still others have suggested that drones may serve as the catalyst that forces a long-overdue update to privacy laws. As the overt embodiment of surveillance, drones could be the impetus behind real change. Much of this may depend, as you suggest, on “how Americans react to the use of what has traditionally be considered a military technology in their own back yard.”