White House details new plans for unmanned aircraft, talks drone delivery and privacy concerns

White House Office of Science and Technology Policy representatives recently discussed the benefits, details, and dangers of unmanned aircraft systems.

Image: Andrew Hoyle/CNET

On Tuesday, the White House announced a series of initiatives to promote integrating drones into the daily lives of consumers and businesses across the US. Officials addressed privacy concerns for the increasingly available commercial drones, and detailed how different sectors can use these machines to complete tasks that are dangerous for humans.

The Workshop on Drones and the Future of Aviation expanded on the June announcement of national guidelines on the non-recreational use of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

"Unmanned aircraft are transforming entire industries," said Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Michael Huerta during the White House workshop. "[They're] providing filmmakers a fresh angle for looking at the world, and giving first responders a new and important tool that they haven't had in the past for things like search and rescue operations."

SEE: Facebook's giant solar-powered drone takes flight to deliver internet to remote areas

The current regulations do not allow the automated, long-distance delivery flying proposed by Amazon and Google. But, Amazon announced last week that it would begin testing its drone delivery service in the UK, and Google's Project Wing will begin conducting experiments at an FAA-approved drone test site, the White House said during the workshop.

The White House also announced $35 million in research funding by the National Science Foundation over the next five years to build understanding of how to effectively design, control, and apply UAS to areas such as monitoring and inspecting physical infrastructure, smart disaster response, agricultural monitoring, and the study of severe storms.

The US Department of the Interior described plans to use UAS to augment manned aircraft operations and improve government processes on technology adoption, as well as the aforementioned search and rescue missions.

"Some people have called the birth of unmanned aircraft the Wright brothers moment of our time," Huerta said. "The only limit to this technology is our imagination."

Commercial drones could generate more than $82 billion for the US economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years, according to industry estimates.

Ground rules

The June FAA rule integrates UAS into US airspace, and "work[s] to harness new innovations safely, to spur job growth, advance critical scientific research and save lives," according to a release.

The rule states that drone operators must be at least 16 years old and have a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating, or be directly supervised by someone with the certificate. Commercial UAS must weigh less than 55 pounds, be flown only in the pilot's visual line of sight, flown only during daylight hours, and reach a maximum altitude of 400 feet above ground level and maximum speed of 100 miles per hour.

However, the Northern Plains UAS Test Site in North Dakota will begin conducting beyond visual line of sight UAS flights, the White House said Tuesday.

Privacy concerns

The recent White House meeting sought to ease citizen privacy concerns over drone use as well. The FAA June rule did not address UAS privacy issues, or regulate how drones gather data on people or property. However, "the FAA strongly encourages all UAS pilots to check local and state laws before gathering information through remote sensing technology or photography," the release said. The pilot certification process will also include privacy education.

So, in conjunction with Tuesday's event, the Future of Privacy Forum, Intel, and PrecisionHawk released a report detailing how drone companies are building in privacy safeguards, highlighting "technologies and practices that help drone operators minimize the collection and retention of personal data, obfuscate images of individuals collected from the air, and secure personally identifiable information," the White House release stated.

"The benefits drones promise are possible only if individuals trust that the technology will be used in ways that benefit them, their community and society," said Paula J. Bruening, Intel senior counsel, in a statement. "They must also be confident that the information drones gather and process is protected and processed in ways that respect their privacy."

The FAA is scheduled to publish a rule for Operations of Small Unmanned Aircraft Over People by the end of 2016, with proposed regulations for using drones near crowds (such as aerial photography) and infrastructure inspection. The agency also created an Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team, in which representatives from the drone and aviation industries will analyze safety data to identify emerging threats drones might pose and prevent accidents, Huerta said.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. On Tuesday, the White House announced a series of initiatives to promote integrating drones into daily life and business across the US.
  2. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not set out drone privacy regulations; however, they encourage all drone pilots to check local and state laws before gathering information via the aircraft.
  3. The FAA is scheduled to publish a rule for Operations of Small Unmanned Aircraft Over People by the end of 2016.

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