Drones In America: Spies Like U.S.? FAA Licenses Released

MQ-9 UAV Drone (Credit: wikipedia.org)
Hello, Citizen.

As reported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the FAA recently released a list of all domestic (U.S.) drone licenses granted.  These are people authorized to fly drones, and they can attach a camera if they want.  Plus, more changes from the FAA are on the way.

Upon reviewing the list, I was surprised by just how many drone licenses have been granted and to whom.  While some are research institutes, many are law enforcement organizations.  Now, I’m not going to get too deep into the politics, here, because honestly, I’m not entirely sure how the drones will be used.  I would, however, like to have the discussion.  I think there is much potential for ill-use.

The following is a map created by Google Maps contributor Jennifer showing the locations in the U.S. where drone certificates have been issued:

Google Map of U.S. Drone Certificates
Google Map of U.S. Drone Certificates

Why Drone On?

I do like the idea of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — they have wings, they fly, and this is ‘Flyopia.com’ after all.  I think they are the perfect vehicles for testing and pushing aviation technology further, without risk to humans.  They’re also a great challenge for kids and home builders. I also think they are good for dangerous tasks like  hunting terrorists.  I even think that as long as humans are in control (and the machines aren’t truly autonomous i.e. Cylon style), they can be weaponized for use in legitimate theaters of war.  But at some point we must stop to question their use for domestic surveillance.  While I think their use for spying on terrorists has been revolutionary, for spying on regular citizens it may set our rights back even further than the Patriot Act or CISPA.

So Who’s Watching You?

Drone Pilots
"Hey, is that your wife?"

Many of the domestic licenses issued are most likely for good reason or innocuous purposes.  For instance, the U.S. Border Patrol has a certificate for border patrol drone flights which I think are certainly justified and reasonable.  Also the University of Colorado is reported by EFF to have had as many as “100 different COAs [certificate of authorization] over the last six years”.  CU, as it’s known locally (it is Flyopia’s local university), has a great aerospace engineering program, and a very close relationship with Ball Aerospace, another local company.  Their use of drones is probably not entirely nefarious.

The Honeywell T-Hawk UAV (Copyright: Honeywell Aerospace)
The T-Hawk (Credit: Honeywell)

More conspicuous is a drone license issued to the Miami-Dade Police Department in Florida.  While there are limitations in their license to flights below 300 ft,  the craft they are using, the Honeywell T-Hawk, has some pretty amazing capabilities, such as a ceiling of 10,000ft and a flight time of just over 45 minutes.

Alright, so maybe the T-Hawk’s 45 minute flight time isn’t actually that incredible.  But for now I think that’s a good thing because that will most likely limit its use for specific purposes (for which there is hopefully a warrant…although Miami says they don’t require one) or in an emergency, or for some other pressing need.  For now….

(UPDATED April 30) Not apparent from the news sources above is a new report by the LA Times here stating that law enforcement agencies are not in fact able to fly their drones under the drone provisions at this time.  This seems contradictory to the EFF report linked above regarding Miami-Dade’s drone usage, which appears to address present use.  Apparently (other?) law enforcement agencies are waiting for an FAA “clearance” before flying their machines under the drone/UAV specifications.  The report states that “…federal rules designed to protect the nation’s airspace have kept them grounded”. Of course even that report which is clearer than previous articles, fails to do much investigation there.  The LA Times piece says that future proposed rules may resemble model airplane rules (a flight envelope under 400 ft and in line-of-site of the controller/pilot), but those rules are in place now, and Miami-Dade says they fly below 300ft.  Personally, I can’t imagine that a police department such as the one in Gadsen Alabama highlighted in the article, spent $150k on a drone, and truly has ‘never’ flown it. (At least under what is permissible now for models.)  I will update this section if more information on current use becomes available.

Personal Freedom and Your Safety

Now aside from privacy, safety is another serious issue.  As the technology and pervasiveness of these UAVs for domestic spying use grows, what will be the limitations?  In Miami, who will actually monitor to make sure the T-Hawk doesn’t occasionally reach its service ceiling?  And even if used for purely legal, benevolent, or research reasons, who will ensure that the T-Hawk and other bigger craft won’t interfere with general aviation?


Kids flying flight simulatlr
"UAV November-5383-charlie, I probably can't see you so....move."

In February, Popular Science reported that the FAA has authorized UAVs to share piloted airspace.  That’s right, piloted.  That means that (worst case) someone sitting behind a 1024 pixel monitor 500 miles away (and safely on the ground) will be sharing the same potentially VFR airspace that you use while flying your family to a weekend retreat.  There are few details of this rule change, but in only a few short years this will be a reality.  If you think bird strikes are an issue, try a UAV ingestion.

I really hope we learn that there are some controls in place before this allowance goes into effect.  The last thing that I want is for my family to be sharing the skies with those guys in that picture at the left. It seems that at this point in aviation development, we’re at a crossroads were we need to handle UAVs properly, or not at all.