Drones and Domestic Surveillance


Drones in the United States

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a component of the Department of Transportation, is the agency responsible with licensing drones for domestic use. The FAA is charged with promulgating minimum standards for air safety in the United States National Air Space.

In late 2010, there were 273 active government licenses, nearly 100 more than the previous year. Reports in 2012 demonstrate that the FAA has issued more than 300 drone licenses. Only minimal information has been released on the nature and function of these drones.

Many law enforcement offices in the United States have purchased drones, including Montgomery, Texas, Seattle, Washington, and Gadsden, Alabama. The Governor of Virginia said in 2012 that he thought it would be "great" to have drones flying over his State. The Miami-Dade Police Department in Florida used Federal grant money to purchase a small drone vehicle. Reports dating back to 2008 explain that Miami was seeking to use a small drone known as a Micro-Air Vehicle, "to gather real time information in situations which may be too dangerous for officers." Companies are developing "paparazzi drones" in order to follow and photograph celebrities. Private detectives are starting to use drones to track their targets. Google, inc. has deployed street-level drones in other countries to supplement the images of Street View. Criminals and others may use drones for purposes of stalking and harassment.

Licensing Drones

Prior to 2012, the requirements to operate a drone in the United States were explained in a pair of FAA documents: drone operational guidelines published on September 16, 2005 and a policy document released on February 13, 2007. These requirements were further elaborated on in a fact sheet on December 1, 2010.

These requirements were largely perfunctory, and focused mainly on the safety of the aircraft itself. Government operators had to obtain an airworthiness certificate and then apply for a separate operational license, while commercial drones were restricted to “experimental” designations that came with additional limitations. Recreational drone operators were able to operate any drone within 400 feet above the ground, though they were held to a “good judgment” standard.

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012

On February 14, 2012, President Obama signed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The Act requires the FAA to take several actions. Among other things, the FAA must expedite the licensure of government drones in the United States and develop a “comprehensive plan” to integrate non-government drones into the national airspace system. The Act prohibits the FAA from developing any regulations for hobby drones in most cases.

On May 8, 2012, the FAA requested feedback on the choice of six test sites to be located in the United States for the purpose of evaluating the safety impact of widespread drone deployment. The test sites were supposed to be selected by August 2012, but the FAA has stated the several concerns, including questions over the privacy impact of drones, were delaying the selection process.