Wednesday, March 5, 2014

UAVs in the US: My Perspective

A number of people have been asking me  for my thoughts on the legal issues associated with the use of UAVs in the United States in light of a couple of recent articles. (See e.g , FAA Says Commercial Drone Operations are Illegal . . Public Says So What? and Busting the FAA's "Myth Busting Document".) Clearly, there are a number of what I would deem technical/safety issues associated with integrating UAVs into the existing legal and policy framework surrounding aircraft. These include issues such as licensing, spectrum, training, etc. I don't mean do downgrade the importance of these issues in order to facilitate the broad adoption of UAV use in the U.S., however my sense is that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is quite capable of coming up with regulations and policies that although not perfect, will be something that will satisfy many - if not most - stakeholders.  Moreover, it will almost certainly be a national standard that will provide for predictability and uniformity, which are important to most stakeholders (businesses and government agencies that wish for greater use of UAVs in the U.S.)

I believe the more troublesome issues are, and will be for some time, associated with UAVs that are used to collect information (of any kind).  First, because it is unclear whether the FAA has the authority or the internal capability to develop regulations around such issues as privacy, data ownership and data protection. Second, because the existing laws and policies on these issues in the U.S.are outdated, in a state of flux and/or often misunderstood. Third, because the issue is a  sensitive topic across the political spectrum; the left and the right are both concerned about who will collect the information and how it will be used. Finally, because there are so many other government authorities that have, or hope to have a say on these issues, including the Federal Trade Commission, state authorities and the courts (federal and state).

The result in the near term is likely to be a patchwork of inconsistent and in some cases conflicting laws and regulations as to what is required in order to begin collecting information, what information can be collected and how it can be used. The challenge for organizations that wish to collect such information will be to work through this legal and regulatory minefield in a manner that maximizes the benefits while minimizing the legal risks. Unfortunately for the FAA, it will sit in the middle of that likely mess and will continue to take much of the blame. 

I am not surprised to hear that there are those who question the FAA's ability (or willingness) to restrict some commercial use of UAVs. I imagine that the FAA is unlikely to challenge the use of very small UAV's, flown at low altitudes, over private property, for limited purposes, with the informed consent of the owner, even for "commercial purposes".  However, I do believe that in the near term the further one moves away from those set of conditions, the more likely you are to run up against some legal or regulatory authority.  

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