Road map gives hints of US drone, privacy regulations to come


This week, the agency responsible for regulating aircraft and airspace in the US set the tone for how unmanned aircraft systems, more commonly called drones, could fly in the country.

The Federal Aviation Administration released three documents -- a road map, comprehensive plan, and privacy rules for drone test sites -- which give an indication of regulations to come.

It's been known months that the FAA has been working on rules for small UAS, which are drones under 55 pounds that journalists are most likely to use. The FAA's road map and comprehensive plan confirm the agency is on track to releasing proposed rules early in 2014.

"The FAA has placed a high priority on the development of rules for small UAS that will increase access to the NAS [National Airspace System] and provide an initial opportunity for commercial operations," the agency wrote in its plan. 

Small unmanned aircraft may not require special certification, according to the comprehensive plan. The FAA wrote that its national goals include "routine civil small UAS" flights for aircraft flying within visual line of sight.

Visual line of sight, or VLOS, means that the drone operator must be able to see the aircraft from the ground at all times. Most flights involving small drones tend to be VLOS, unless they use a video link that allows the pilot to view the drone's perspective from a mile or farther in the distance.

The FAA does, however, plan to "issue permits to operate as applicable to small UAS," and the UAS road map indicates that flights beyond VLOS will need extra certification.

"Except for some special cases, such as small UAS (sUAS) with very limited operational range, all UAS will require design and airworthiness certification to fly civil operations in the NAS," the FAA wrote.

The road map also indicates the FAA is planning to require "classification of sUAS, certification of sUAS pilots, registration of sUAS, approval of sUAS operations, and sUAS operational limits" as part of those rules. 

The agency is required by The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (pdf) to publish final rules for small UAS by August 14, 2014.

When those final rules arrive, drone operators might have to report data from any incidents to the FAA. "Data collection will expand when... associated safety data reporting requirements are implemented for sUAS," the agency wrote in the road map.

Meanwhile, UAS test sites are required to write plans for how they intend to keep data collected from their aircraft, and will have to meet annually with the public about their privacy concerns. Besides those mandates, the FAA is leaving the issue of privacy to test site operators, the court system, and the states.

"... if operations at a Test Site raise privacy concerns that are not adequately addressed by the Test Site's privacy policies, elected officials can weigh the benefits and costs of additional privacy laws or regulations," the agency wrote, adding that 43 states have enacted or proposed legislation on drones.

While the FAA acknowledged a "a long history of placing cameras and other sensors on aircraft for a variety of purposes—news helicopters, aerial surveys, film/television production, law enforcement, etc," it wrote that it would not "take specific views" on privacy regulation in selecting test sites.

The FAA also wrote that it was "not appropriate" for the agency to create a public database of UAS operations at test sites, but is requiring operators to keep records on each of their unmanned aircraft.

If the test sites are meant to help determine national drone policy, then it follows that privacy rules for these test sites likewise will translate into national privacy policy. And if these privacy rules are any indication, it looks as if the states will have the last word on drones and privacy.