August 9, 2007 1:36 PM PDT
Police agencies push for drone sky patrols
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The civilian piloting community would like to see the FAA do even more to rein in UAV use, citing grave concerns about the potential for dangerous collisions.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) has been lobbying for UAVs to be held to the same rules as manned aircraft. The group is also leading a committee under the umbrella of the RTCA, an international aviation standards body, to devise uniform industry guidelines that would likely steer the FAA's own deliberations about new regulations.
UAVs "should be safetly integrated into the national airspace system with other users, and what that means is having some 'see and avoid capability' to detect other aircraft and the ability to communicate with air traffic control stations," AOPA spokeswoman Kathleen Vasconcelos said in a phone interview.
Pilots undergo extensive training on collision detection and avoidance. Planes that fly at night are required to have certain types of lights, for instance. Operating an aircraft near busy airports (in government parlance, "Class B" airports) requires a transponder that broadcasts its altitude. And during all flights that take place in poor weather or higher than 18,000 feet above sea level, the pilot must be in radio contact with controllers.
Last summer, AOPA reported the Gaston County, N.C. police department to federal authorities when it discovered that the officials were flying a small UAV for surveillance purposes without a certificate, which prompted the FAA to prohibit its use.
Privacy advocates have also raised alarms about the idea of new digital eyes patrolling the skies. The Electronic Privacy Information Center's Melissa Ngo, who has written about the privacy implications of increased government use of UAVs, said it's important to sort out a number of questions about the potential for their misuse and abuse.
For instance, authorities tout UAVs as being far quieter than their manned counterparts, which some authorities view as the answer to residents' complaints about helicopter noise levels. But the presence of virtually silent and increasingly smaller machines raises obvious privacy concerns.
"Have state and local police departments spoken to city councils or the public at large about the use of UAVs to watch the general public in everyday activities?" she said in an e-mail interview. "Civilian use of UAVs by state and local police would create a world of constant, unseen surveillance."
Local officials aren't necessarily looking for unfettered UAV-driving rights, Shinnamon said. Ideally, the FAA will be able to work with state and local government officials to come up with UAV-specific regulations, which address things like how high the drones can fly, how far they can travel from their operator, and whether they need to be in the driver's line of sight.
"Once we overcome this regulatory issue, I honestly think the use of this technology will explode at the local government level because it offers just so many benefits to us and the ability to serve our citizens," Shinnamon said.
Heal, whose office tested a drone last year but has not yet secured formal permission to use it, said he doesn't "detect any sense of urgency" on the FAA's part to make its regulations simpler for local officials to follow.
"We're going to do this; this is coming," he said. "And (the FAA) can jump on this train or they can run along behind it, but it is going to leave without them."
CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh contributed to this story.
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