The Federal Aviation Administration made clear Thursday that additional privacy measures are not necessary for the emerging civilian drone industry, a blow to government-surveillance watchdogs clamoring for regulation of drone users.
Speaking before the Aerospace Industries Association, FAA chief Michael Huerta unveiled a five-year road map plotting a path forward for the integration of commercial drones into national airspace. The FAA expects there to be 7,500 unmanned aircraft darting across the skies within the next five years. By 2025, that number could soar to more than 30,000.
"Make no mistake about it, privacy is an extremely important issue, and it's something that the public has a significant interest and concern over," Huerta said. "We need to recognize as an industry if we're going to take full advantage of the benefits of these technologies, we need to be responsive to the public's concerns about privacy."
Huerta said that the FAA is working with several federal agencies, including the departments of Homeland Security and Justice, to develop appropriate privacy safeguards. But his comments — and the new report — are largely cursory.
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who is sponsoring drone-privacy legislation in the House, said the report shows the FAA is "definitely" not doing enough to provide safeguards on potential drone use or licensing.
"It's largely that they don't see that it's under their authority or jurisdiction," Welch said, adding: "Having an argument about whether it's platform-neutral sort of evades the reality that this has a massive capacity to intrude on privacy rights of all Americans."
Welch said he intends to solicit backing from other members in the coming week. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., also introduced a Senate version of the bill this week. "A patchwork of plans without a federal law is simply not enough to ensure the strongest safeguards are in place," Markey said in a statement.
"In requiring (unmanned aircraft systems) test sites to have a written plan for data use and retention, the FAA also appropriately focuses on the real issue when it comes to privacy — the use, storage, and sharing of data, or whether data collected must be deleted," Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said in a statement. "This dovetails with AUVSI's position that any privacy laws must be platform-neutral, treating manned and unmanned platforms the same."
Huerta did not announce where the FAA will set up its six test sites, but said the agency had received 25 proposals representing 26 states and still expects to award the contracts by the end of the year. But the FAA has repeatedly missed congressionally mandated deadlines guiding the integration of drones into commercial airspace, and skepticism remains as to whether those sites will be chosen within the next two months.