New Senate Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Caucus to Tackle Privacy Issues

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

While Washington lawmakers remain deeply divided down party lines, several senators have reached across the aisle to form a new unmanned aerial vehicle caucus.

One of the top priorities will be the impact of UAV surveillance in U.S. airspace on citizen’s privacy, said lawmakers.

Legislation passed earlier this year requires the Federal Aviation Administration to integrate the aircraft into national airspace by 2015. The bipartisan caucus intends to educate other senators about the growing technology.

“The increased use of unmanned aerial systems means we must ensure that we maximize their potential while minimizing their risk,” said co-chair of the caucus Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., in an email.

The eight-member caucus includes: Sens. Manchin, Jim Inhofe, R-Okla.; Jerry Moran, R-Kan.; Mark Begich, D-Alaska; Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas; Mark Warner, D-Va.; John Hoeven, R-N.D.; and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

“It’s important for all of us to understand how we can use this advancing technology to strengthen our national security and improve our ability to respond in case of natural or man-made disasters, while at the same time ensuring the privacy and well-being of all of our law-abiding American citizens,” said Manchin.

Manchin said the group of four Democrats and four Republicans will work in a bipartisan fashion. Other senators might be joining soon, he said.

Hutchison said, “UAVs have proven to be an invaluable resource for our forces on the battlefield, intelligence gathering, homeland security and scientific purposes … The UAV caucus will educate lawmakers about the value of these systems and help create policy related to UAV development and deployment.”

A Senate caucus on unmanned systems has been a long time coming with recent technology developments, said one congressional aide.

The Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 mandated that the FAA integrate unmanned aircraft into the domestic airspace by 2015. A key deadline establishing six pilot sites by Aug. 12 was not met.

“What we are seeing across the board, in homeland security, [and] in private industry … [is] there has been legislation that has been proposed, but there hasn’t been a collective number of members that have gotten together to actually openly discuss it,” said the aide who works for co-chair Inhofe.

It is essential for an open discussion to take place in the Senate on unmanned systems, and for the dialogue to include senators, constituents and industry in both the commercial and military markets, said the aide, who declined to be named.

The caucus has been in the works for about a year, and he expects between 20 and 30 senators to eventually join. Meetings will start taking place during the lame duck session, he said.

Caucus members believe that UAVs present a number of safety and ethical issues.

“What are the safety requirements when one of these things go down?” asked the aide. “If we had the answers, we wouldn’t need this caucus.”

Sense-and-avoid technology has been a sticking point in the debate to allow UAVs into domestic airspace. Those involved in the debate want to ensure that the drones will be able to sense other aircraft, or objects, in the field and successfully fly without collision.

In regards to privacy, the caucus needs more information.

“We need to understand how we are going to protect U.S. citizens’ privacy,” he said.

In order to do so, the senators plan to consult with lawyers and Department of Justice officials to better understand the legality of flying UAVs in domestic airspace, he said. Guidelines also need to be created to regulate the way police use the technology.

Protecting the rights of Americans while responsibly using the systems is paramount, Manchin said.

“The caucus will stay on top of all policy issues involving this technology and have an ongoing conversation about the best ways to protect Americans’ privacy while harnessing this technology,” said Manchin.

Common privacy concerns include how police and ordinary citizens will use the technology. Will police use the aircraft to monitor neighborhoods on a continuous basis, even when there are no known threats? Will ordinary citizens be able to look inside neighbor’s windows or into their backyards using the aircraft? These are questions that the caucus will likely visit.

Commercial applications will also be looked at, such as using the technology for agricultural use and in times of natural disasters.

Both Global Hawks and Predators are based out of North Dakota, and they are used for border security, to check on crops and to help with evaluating natural disasters, said Hoeven.

Officials in Fargo, N.D. — the state’s most populous city — worry about devastating floods caused by the Red River of the North, and unmanned aerial systems have been used to help evaluate damage, Hoeven said.

Agricultural uses are also of particular interest to the caucus, said the aide.

Through multi-spectral imagery sensors attached to the aircraft, it is possible to tell how much water a specific crop is getting and needs. Developing this technology will help with harvests, he said.

Hutchison, who will be retiring after this year, said, “The caucus will also focus on building a world-class industrial base, creating more American jobs capable of maintaining our nation’s superiority in UAV research and development.”

Hoeven said the United States is the leader in unmanned technology, and to maintain that position the country as a whole must work to continue developing the technology.

“Our military is flying UAS all over the world. We are leading in this technology. … We need to continue to lead the world in aviation technology — that is important to our national defense and important to job creation,” said Hoeven. “We have got to develop the technology and the systems to fly UAS in concurrent airspace with commercial and general aviation in our country. It is vital so we can continue our leadership.”

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a non-profit group that works to advance unmanned systems, welcomed the Senate caucus, said Mario Mairena, its government relations manager.

The establishment of the caucus is instrumental for AUVSI, and it will provide the non-profit with an “additional reach,” Mairena said.

Many members of the Senate and House of Representatives think that unmanned aircraft are only used overseas, Mairena said. The formation of the Senate UAV caucus alongside the House Caucus will give AUVSI an opportunity to educate members about the systems and how they can be used for commercial and military purposes, he said.

The House Unmanned Systems Caucus, formed in 2009, includes 60 members, and is led by Reps. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., and Henry Cuellar, D-Texas.

“The mission of the U.S. House Unmanned Systems Caucus is to educate members of Congress and the public on the strategic, tactical, and scientific value of unmanned systems; actively support further development and acquisition of more systems, and to more effectively engage the civilian aviation community on unmanned system use and safety,” the caucus’ website said.

Industry has been itching to have the Senate create an unmanned systems caucus, said the aide.

“I think industry as well as the agencies and Congress have been starved for a group to pick this up. It’s been growing without any congressional oversight interest,” he said.

The overall response from industry has been positive, and there have already been meetings between companies and some senators where issues were discussed, he said.

Hoeven said, “[It’s] not just the leading companies in aerospace. … But even beyond that, a whole range of companies that recognize that innovation is the way forward here. … There is an excitement about it.”

From the smallest companies, to large multinational ones, UAV manufacturers are ready to work with the Senate, he said.

Manchin also pledged that all individuals interested and part of unmanned systems will be heard.

“The caucus will work with stakeholders at all levels and we hope to help our colleagues come to a better understanding of how this technology can be used,” said Manchin.

Ultimately, the caucus hopes to create greater understanding of the complicated and intricate workings of unmanned systems, and clear up confusion that some senators may have.

“There is a lot of interest, but we haven’t well defined the rules of operations. … We really need to get our hands around the whole issue,” said the aide.

Looking at all these issues — proliferation, privacy, safety and addressing commercial and military needs — is what the caucus is about, Hoeven said.

“It’s really a collaboration to bring all of these things together, and not only interact with the military, but also with the commercial development of UAS,” said Hoeven. 

Photo Credit: Air Force, Senate

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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