President Obama has approved new legislation that will quicken the pace of the drive to introduce the use of domestic surveillance drones within US airspace. Obama signed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 Thursday.
The bill spells out the conditions and requirements for immediate integration of drones into the national aviation system.
According to RT, after the president approved the legislation on Thursday, the FAA began reaching out across the US for cities that will provide locations for the first six test sites for drones.
FAA officials say cities in more than 30 states have indicated interest in the proposal to establish drone test sites. But only six initial locations are required in the first critical step toward full integration of drones in the US airspace. FAA officials are hoping that drones will begin flying routinely in US airspace by late 2015. Officials expect that by the end of the decade up to 30,000 non-military drones will by flying in US airspace.
According to RT, FAA Chief Michael Huerta, said in a statement obtained by the Associated Press: "We expect to learn how unmanned aircraft systems operate in different environments and how they will impact air traffic operations. The test sites will inform the agency as we develop standards for certifying unmanned aircraft and determine necessary air traffic requirements."
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told AP: "This research will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation's skies."
The US Department of Homeland Security has a drone fleet of its own that it uses for border patrol missions. However, law enforcement agencies, federal, state and even educational institutions hope to acquire drones of their own soon.
Reports say the FAA has already received applications for drone licenses from various organizations that include police departments and educational institutions. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) reports that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), has released a new drone authorization list in response to EFF's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit. The list includes law enforcement agencies, universities across the country and an Indian tribal agency.
EFF reports that the list includes 20 additional entities over the previous FAA list. The new additions to the list bring the number of pubic entities that have applied for FAA drone authorizations to 81.
EFF lists some of the new drone license applicants:
The State Department
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
Barona Band of Mission Indians Risk Management Office (near San Diego, California)
Canyon County Sheriff’s Office (Idaho)
Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office (Northwest Oregon)
Grand Forks Sheriff’s Department (North Dakota)
King County Sheriff’s Office (covering Seattle, Washington)
And several new entities in Ohio, including:
Medina County Sheriff’s Office
Ohio Department of Transportation
Sinclair Community College
Lorain County Community College
According to EFF: "The list has sparked more discussion about whether using domestic drones for surveillance is consistent with the Constitution and with American values."
It comes at a time public concern is growing about a newly-released memo that reveals CIA's policy on the targeted killing of American citizens, and after news that Charlottesville, Virginia has become one of the first US cities to ban drones.
Americans are expressing concern about law enforcement agencies acquiring drones, especially fears that law enforcement use of drones will transform US society into a "surveillance society."
"...drone use in the United States implicates serious privacy and civil liberties concerns. Although drones can be used for neutral, or even for positive purposes, drones are also capable of highly advanced and, in some cases, almost constant surveillance, and they can amass large amounts of data. Even the smallest drones can carry a host of surveillance equipment, from video cameras and thermal imaging to GPS tracking and cellphone eavesdropping tools. They can also be equipped with advanced forms of radar detection, license plate cameras, and facial recognition... surveillance tools, like the military’s... gigapixel technology capable of 'tracking people and vehicles across an entire city.'"
According to the ACLU, US law enforcement will, in the next few years, begin expanding its use of domestic drones for surveillance. ABC reports that the sheriff's department in Montgomery County, Texas, for instance, already has a 50-pound ShadowHawk helicopter drone to back up its SWAT team. Although the department has not armed its drone, it can be equipped with a 40 mm grenade launcher and a 12-gauge shotgun. The prospect of armed drones patrolling the skies alarms Americans.
According to the ACLU:
"...routine aerial surveillance would profoundly change the character of public life in America. Rules must be put in place to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a 'surveillance society' in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the government. Drone manufacturers are also considering offering police the option of arming these remote-controlled aircraft with (nonlethal for now) weapons like rubber bullets, Tasers, and tear gas. Read the ACLU’s full report on domestic drones here. "
There are also concerns that drones can be hacked and used for terrorist or criminal purposes. While military drones use encrypted GPS signals that are difficult to hack, the GPS signals used by civilian drones are unprotected.
According to ABC, when on Thursday Obama was asked about concerns that drones may also be used in the US to kill citizens as abroad, he said: "There's never been a drone used on an American citizen on American soil.
"We respect and have a whole bunch of safeguards in terms of how we conduct counter-terrorism operations outside of the United States. The rules outside of the United States are going to be different than the rules inside the United States, in part because our capacity, for example, to capture terrorists in the United States are very different than in the foothills or mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan."
Earlier in the week, the head of the FAA’s new drone department at a convention outside Washington DC attempted to address some of the fears and concerns. RT reports that Jim Williams of the FAA's unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Office, said: “We currently have rules in the books that deal with releasing anything from an aircraft, period. Those rules are in place and that would prohibit weapons from being installed on a civil aircraft."
But the ACLU says that in consonance with the new legislation Obama just signed, Congress has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to change airspace rules so that it would be easier for law enforcement agencies to use domestic drones. The ACLU notes, contrary to Williams' claim, that the rules do not adequately address public concerns such as privacy protection. However, the FAA has recently posted online a new draft plan for privacy protection.
But Americans don't seem impressed with the assurances from FAA.
Wired.com reports that around 150 people from Oakland, California attended a meeting in Alameda County to deliberate on plans by the Sheriff’s Department to deploy drones. Michael Seigel, a member of Alameda County Against Drones, said: “We oppose the use of public resources to buy machines to surveil its citizens."