By ANDY PASZTOR and JOHN EMSHWILLER
With little public attention, dozens of universities and law-enforcement agencies have been given approval by federal aviation regulators to use unmanned aircraft known as drones, according to documents obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests by an advocacy group.
The more than 50 institutions that received approvals to operate remotely piloted aircraft are more varied than many outsiders and privacy experts previously knew. They include not only agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security but also smaller ones such as the police departments in North Little Rock, Ark., and Ogden, Utah, as well the University of North Dakota and Nicholls State University in Louisiana.
In February, the Mesa County Sheriff's Department in Colorado tested a drone with an infrared camera. It measures about 36 inch wide.
The information, released by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, came to light as the Federal Aviation Administration gears up to advance the widespread use of the drones. By the fall of 2015, Congress wants the agency to integrate remotely piloted aircraft throughout U.S. airspace.
Although the documents don't indicate how the aircraft will be used, the disclosures likely will fuel privacy concerns involving drones.
On Thursday, Democratic Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Republican Rep. Joe Barton of Texas asked the acting administrator of the FAA to answer questions about the privacy implications of increased drone use.
Organizations That Have Sought to Use Drones
See a list of what groups have requested licenses from the FAA to use drones, and the status of that request.
"Many drones are designed to carry surveillance equipment, including video cameras, infrared thermal imagers, radar and wireless network 'sniffers,' " the representatives wrote in their letter to Michael Huerta. Now that the FAA, under pressure from lawmakers and businesses, is pushing to increase the use of drones, it has "the responsibility to ensure that the privacy of individuals is protected and that the public is fully informed about who is using drones in public airspace and why," they wrote.
The FAA declined to comment.
As part of the push to increase uses of civilian drones, nearly 50 companies are developing some 150 different systems, ranging from miniature models to those with wingspans comparable to airliners.
The FAA previously said it has approved dozens of nonmilitary uses of unmanned aircraft, ranging from law enforcement to firefighting to wildlife monitoring. Drones also have been used for news coverage, mapping and agricultural applications.
The University of North Dakota uses drones in connection with an undergraduate degree program in unmanned aircraft systems it started in 2009. Al Palmer, a university official involved in the program, said about 78 students have declared majors in the field and that graduates have found jobs with drone manufacturers or operators.
The North Little Rock police department has been working with a small pilotless helicopter since 2008, said Sgt. Pat Thessing. It is currently training with the aircraft over unpopulated areas only, while it awaits FAA rules for use of such aircraft elsewhere. It hopes to use them for surveillance of high-crime neighborhoods, during drug investigations and other work.
The list obtained by the EFF represents all entities that have applied for drone permits, but doesn't show how many drones each entity has, said Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney with the group. FAA officials have talked about the existence of about 300 active permits.
Recipients of these special permits must fly in a certain geographic area outlined on their application. Currently, the FAA typically doesn't allow drones to fly through airspace where commercial, business and private planes travel.
Ryan Calo, who conducts research into privacy and robotics at Stanford Law School, said the domestic use of drones will likely grow as more machines are brought back from war and as prices fall.
"The very same drone that was staking out a nest of insurgents and possibly shooting them could be deployed in New York for surveillance" after removal of weaponry, Mr. Calo said. He said the use of drones could spark a wider debate about privacy because people aren't accustomed to such technology. "If you bring back a tank from Afghanistan, you don't expect it to show up in a park," he said.
—Jennifer Valentino-DeVries and Andrew Morse
contributed to this article.
If you don’t like drones, it’s time to move to Hawaii. It’s one of the few places in the U.S. where no licenses have been issued for unmanned air flights. If you prefer the mainland, North Carolina, South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa are a few of your options. Consult this interactive map via EFF for relocation planning purposes.
After suing the Federal Aviation Administration for its failure to respond to a FOIA, civil liberties group EFF finally got a response to its inquiry about who in the U.S. has authorization to fly drones. We already knew a bit about how public sector players (such as sheriff’s departments) were starting to use drones, but the documents shed new light on who in the private industry is currently living the drone dream in the U.S.
The FAA released a list of the private manufacturers who have “Special Airworthiness Certificates,” which is what a non-government entity needs to fly a particular drone model. Last year, the FAA told me that there were just 18 active certificates. The lucky few holding those are primarily big defense companies: Raytheon, General Atomics, Telford Aviation, AAI Corp, Honeywell, Unmanned Systems Inc, L-3, and Aurora Flight Companies. The smaller players in the unmanned aircraft industry (such as those making drones to save whales abroad) have been muscled out thus far.
Government entities just need a Certificate of Authorization (COA) to fly a drone. That list includes just over 60 drone enthusiasts including DARPA; the FBI; branches of the military; the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, & Homeland Security; a bunch of public universities; and a few lucky police departments. This won’t be surprising to regular drone watchers. As we know, Customs and Border Protection is already flying drones along the borders (and sometimes loaning them to local law enforcement agencies). And public universities often partner with private industry for research projects, and a few are launching new “drone studies” programs.
These lists will be much longer in the future. Congress is pushing the FAA to put law enforcement applications to fly drones on the fast track. And by 2015, the FAA has to start allowing commercial use of drones, so that defense companies aren’t the only ones who can use them in the U.S. That means Google could start doing its street mapping with drones, that Fed-Ex could realize its dreams to deliver packages with unmanned planes, and that you might be able to get lunch delivered by a Tacocopter.