Congress members want update on UAVs

Dayton area in the running to be one of six test sites across the nation to test the integration of aerial drones.

Congressional leaders are concerned the Federal Aviation Administration may not meet a 2015 deadline to integrate unmanned aerial vehicles into civilian manned airspace because of concerns about privacy.

In a Feb. 8 letter to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the Congressional Unmanned Aerial Systems Caucus, which includes U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, asked for an update on the progress of the program by Feb. 22 while it urged the agency to primarily focus on safety, not privacy, as it plans to select six test sites across the nation to test the integration of aerial drones. Southwest Ohio is expected to compete for one of those locales.

The federal agency had been expected to choose the locations by the end of last year, but indefinitely suspended that timeline to take more time to explore privacy concerns with UAV surveillance.

Caucus leaders said while the FAA has made “substantial” progress, “there is growing concern that the FAA, in an attempt to address privacy concerns, will be unable to meet it congressionally mandated timeline to safely integrate” the unmanned systems into civilian airspace by September 2015.

“Privacy as it pertains to UAS operations continues to be a growing concern within the public and private sectors,” the letter said. “Many in Congress share this concern.” The caucus said its working with various federal agencies, such as the Department of Justice and the Department of Commerce, on the concerns.

In a statement, the FAA said it was continuing to develop the screening information request for proposals for the six test sites.

“Increasing the use of UAS in our airspace also raises privacy issues, and these issues will need to be addressed as unmanned aircraft are safely integrated. We will work with our interagency partners, Congress and the public regarding the appropriate way to address privacy concerns for UAS,” the statement said.

Joseph Zeis, Dayton Development Coalition executive vice president and chief strategic officer, said the UAV industry is one of the fastest growing within the aerospace industry. Ohio is uniquely positioned to compete in the growing sector with Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, test sites in southwest Ohio and other assets.

“All the pieces are there and ready to be put together,” he said. “It’s unique, it’s powerful and it’s something that we are well-positioned to take advantage of.”

The issue of privacy should be resolved by Congress or the agencies flying UAVs, said Ben Gielow, government relations manager at the Association for Unmanned Aerial Systems International in Arlington, Va.

“We certainly applaud the unmanned systems caucus for taking a leadership role and try to get the FAA to focus on their core mission which is the safety of the airspace,” he said.

But Aime Stephanovich, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., said the FAA is in a unique position to address privacy because it would act as a licensing agency for UAVs. More communities and states across the nation, along with pending bills in Congress, have drafted legislation to address the issue of surveillance and drones.

The “transparency and accountability that’s been built into this has been very lax,” she said.

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