Impending Boom in U.S Domestic Drone Market Causes Concern over Privacy and Safety


With the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) preparing to open up U.S. airspace to drones by September 2015, unmanned aircraft could soon become a more common sight in U.S. skies. Drones are being eyed by more than 21,000 state and local law enforcement departments, scientists, journalists, private corporations and more as a viable option to undertake a variety of tasks that include surveillance, border patrol, search and rescue, academic research and monitoring natural disasters. Industry insiders predict the growing market for UAVs could be worth billions of dollars with civilian drones costing as little as U.S. $25,000.

Lauded for its cost-effectiveness and efficiency, drone technology is set to transform the domestic market as users find more innovative ways to harness the power of UAVs. In 2010, drone expenditure grew by 12% and amounted to about U.S. $3 billion. These figures are determined to increase steadily: total expenditure on UAVs is predicted to surpass U.S. $7 billion in the next 10 years with market research indicating that 70% of global growth and market share will be in the U.S. The FAA estimates that 10,000 civilian drones will be operating in U.S. airspace within the next five years and another forecast predicts that by 2018, more than 15,000 unmanned aircraft will be operating in the U.S. with a total of 30,000 deployed elsewhere worldwide.

Privacy Concerns are Just the Beginning

FAA records show that as of Dec. 1, 2011 there are 270 active authorisations for the use of drones, with 35% percent of these granted to the Defense Department, 11% to NASA, 5% to the Department of Homeland Security and the rest to various private and government entities. The trend for use of UAVs will soon expand to applications that include livestock monitoring, wildfire mapping, road patrol, crop-dusting and mapping and surveying in the oil and gas industry. On top of their surveillance functions, drones are able to carry a variety of equipment that include tasers, bean bag guns, live-feed video cameras, radars, facial recognition systems, thermal imaging cameras and other weapons and sensors. A newer model even has the ability to hack into Wi-Fi networks and intercept text messages and cell phone conversations without the knowledge of the customer or service provider.

In a congressional hearing entitled “Using Unmanned Aerial Systems within the Homeland: Security Game Changer?” chairman Rep. Michael McCaul raised questions over the repercussions of drones being used domestically. “With only two and a half short years until drones begin to dominate the skies in the U.S. homeland, no federal agency is taking the lead to deal with the full implications of using unmanned aerial systems and developing the relevant policies and guidelines for their use,” he stated on Thursday. McCaul lambasted the absence of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at the hearing and its failure to take responsibility for the privacy gaps that drones present especially since “Some Americans worry such systems will become invasive ‘eyes-in-the-sky’.”

Questions remain over who is accountable for developing comprehensive legislation that will regulate drone use in the domestic market; no federal agency has yet stepped up to the task. The DHS’s stance is that it is not in charge of domestic issues, while the FAA stresses that it is strictly limited to aviation matters and not privacy. In the hearing on Thursday, Chief Deputy William McDaniel of the Montgomery County, Texas, Sheriff’s Office said: “UAV’s operate just like their manned counterparts. Obviously, the primary difference is having a crew on the ground operating it as opposed to a crew operating the airborne aircraft. There has been case law developed over the years to deal with manned aircraft operations for public safety agencies. We believe these same laws would absolutely apply to UAV operations.”

Nevertheless privacy advocates contend that as a whole, current U.S. legislation affords little to no protection for citizens when it comes to drones, citing the Supreme Court declaration that individuals have no “expectation of privacy” in public places. The implication is that law enforcement agencies are free to observe individuals from public airspace whether they are on their own property or elsewhere without a warrant. Douglas MacDonald, the president of a North Dakota chapter of the Unmanned Applications Institute International expresses confusion over the privacy concerns outlined by civil rights groups. “If you’re concerned about it, maybe there’s a reason we should be flying over you, right? But as soon as you lose your kid, get your car stolen or have marijuana growing out at your lake place that’s not yours, you’d probably want one of those flying overhead.”

The Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI), the industry association for drones, has faced public backlash fuelled by concerns over the lack of regulation. To regain community support AUVSI issued an industry code of conduct, promising to win “public acceptance and trust” despite 60% of its stakeholders fostering the belief that there would be “no” social, ethical, or moral problems to emerge as a result of the advancement of unmanned systems. Having spent $2.3 million on lobbying Congress, AUVSI is yet to win over interest groups who remain sceptical of their pledge of openness and transparency.

Use first, test later

The matter of drone safety is another common theme in the bid to introduce drones domestically. Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, worries about the training and certification of those flying unmanned aircraft. The FAA, tasked with co-ordinating manned and unmanned aircraft will be required to take into account the ability of sensors aboard unmanned aircraft to properly detect a nearby plane so as to avoid potential collisions. One critical issue is related to how UAVs will respond to command and control signals; military research has indicated that drones have a higher accident rate than manned aircraft and have in the past slipped out of their handlers’ control. “At some point, the FAA has to get its arms” around such safety concerns “and answer those basic questions,” Mr. Moak said.

The "Spy Hawk" is a civilian legal UAV that looks and operates just like any R/C plane.

Although drones are made to become faster, more accurate and stealthier and than ever before, they are not without weaknesses: on top of potential malfunction, the possibility of hacking is at the forefront of every mind as the major concern is over drones being taken into the wrong hands. Culprits could be hostile states or terrorist organisations with the ability to hack into systems and redirect them. Last week a test conducted by Todd Humphreys of the University of Texas highlighted the vulnerabilities behind a drone’s GPS system that would allow the hacker to freely steer the drone. Says Humphreys, “You can scarcely imagine the kind of havoc you could cause if you knew what you were doing with a GPS spoofer.” Noel Sharkey of the University of Sheffield professor and co-founder of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) is concerned that governments are not adequately prepared to defend against hackings, citing a recent incident where Iraqi insurgents intercepted live feeds from U.S. drones using a $30 piece of software.

Although Humphreys believes that hacking into drones could be more difficult than believed, he says “I think this would be a gaping security vulnerability,” adding that “I don’t want to see drones coming into the national airspace before we patch this problem.” Neither the FAA nor the Department of Homeland security has formulated in-depth contingency plans to guard against spoofing attacks.


An EEF map of drones currently in use in the U.S. in available at:,-110.039062&spn=58.987964,112.5&z=3&source=embed


Author: Mary

Mary is an independent contributor to My Bloggity Blog who hails from Australia. Her posts bring a unique and refreshing approach to some very sensitive topics throughout the world that only someone from outside of the United States can provide.

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  • Cora

    For $30 and computer knowledge you can cause massive chaos. Policy makers need to rent "I, ROBOT" though they could illegally download the movie. After years, the heavily funded Hollywood lobbyist still can't stop illegal downloads yet politicians claim that UAV's systems are safe. The only positive outcome from 9/11 were the deaths of a few terrorists; in 2021 that will be mute.

    The Future of Terrorism – focus on the quality of your army (this saves TONS of money) – an army of one really can change the world (you could pay this person a mint and still be in the black)

    I believe fucking outside ON MY OWN PROPERTY without concern of blackmail or career ramifications is part of the AMERICAN DREAM. To the people who feel only those involved in illegal activity are concerned for their privacy: get NAKED and go WILD.