Waiting for Amazon to start delivering your groceries via drone or hoping you’ll have drone-delivered internet sometime soon? While delivery by drone – for food or internet – is not yet a reality, it will be someday. And before that time comes, the U.S. must first address the very real privacy, transparency, and accountability issues related to unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAS). On Monday, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) convened the first in a series of multistakeholder meetings to address these issues. The monthly meetings, which are open to the public and will run through November, are the continuation of a process which began earlier this year with the NTIA’s call for comments on "Developing Best Practices for Commercial and Private Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” They signal an opportunity for interested stakeholders to make sure their concerns – and hopes – for a future with drones are heard.
In total, 51 individuals and organizations responded to the NTIA’s call for comments this spring. OTI’s comments called attention to the potential for, and threat of, persistent surveillance by unmanned aircraft. In addition to OTI’s participation in the NTIA process, we have been deeply engaged in analyzing and roadmapping the future of drones. In collaboration with New America’s International Security Program, we recently launched World of Drones, a pair of databases on the state of UAS regulations and use worldwide. The first database maps global UAS (or UAV, unmanned aerial vehicle) regulations, and the second database details over 120 civil drone projects with a variety of missions, such as community mapping, archaeology, and wildlife surveying. Most recently, New America hosted Drones and Aerial Observation in late July, a day-long symposium on the intersection of UAS, property rights, human rights, and development (the event coincided with the publication of a primer on those same issues).
OTI’s work coincides with efforts by the federal government to identify how best to integrate UAS into the nation’s airspace. In February, President Obama issued a memorandum mandating that the NTIA convene this multistakeholder process "to develop a framework regarding privacy, accountability, and transparency for commercial and private UAS use." That same day, the FAA released its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for “Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems” and solicited public feedback. At Monday’s multistakeholder meeting, FAA attorneys gave an update on the NPRM process. The agency is still reviewing public comments but offered highlights of the proposed rules, including requirements that UAS flights are conducted in daytime hours only, no higher than 500 feet above ground level, in sight of the operator, and not over people not involved with the UAS operation.
A quick look at the databases in OTI’s World of Drones project shows why the FAA rulemaking process is significant and why the NTIA’s multistakeholder process could play an influential role in shaping the future of drones. UAS are not the dreams of a far-off future – they are already here and in wide use for a variety of purposes, including disaster and emergency response, mapmaking, agricultural monitoring, and more. The best practices that could come from this multistakeholder process are not only needed, they’re needed now.
The NTIA’s multistakeholder model – which admittedly hasn’t always been successful – is intended to bring together industry professionals, civil society groups, academics, technology experts, and others in order to identify high-priority issues related to the use of UAS and to consider how those issues might be addressed. The goal of this multistakeholder process is to generate a set of non-binding “best practices” for UAS operation. According to NTIA representatives, given the nascent nature of the UAS industry, developing best practices is preferable to establishing a binding code of conduct, which was the outcome of a prior multistakeholder process.
By the close of Monday’s meeting, attendees had identified a lengthy list of issues to consider, including the privacy of individuals in both privately owned and public spaces, collection and use of data, safeguarding of operators’ First Amendment rights, aircraft registration, and operator certification. Prior to the next multistakeholder meeting on September 24, attendees will investigate existing best practices, current state regulations, and potential use cases. At that meeting the group will identify how the multistakeholder process should be structured moving forward.
OTI’s work on UAS, as well as the NTIA multistakeholder process, the FAA NPRM, and countless other efforts to prepare for a future with UAS are taking place at a critical time. Not only has the FAA certified thousands of public, civilian, and commercial drone operators, but major companies including Google, Facebook, and Amazon are experimenting with this technology. Unmanned Aircraft Systems will be so ingrained in our society that developing comprehensive best practices to prepare for our “drone future” is essential to protecting privacy, maintaining transparency, and keeping users accountable. UAS technology has the potential to revolutionize how many industries operate, but careful consideration of its consequences is crucial – and something that OTI is deeply committed to.