Nearly 60 Private And Government Entities Authorized To Operate Drones
The Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management, chaired by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), held a hearing Thursday entitled “Using Unmanned Aerial Systems Within the Homeland: Security Game Changer?” on Capitol Hill.
According to a committee news release, unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have enhanced the surveillance capabilities for military operations abroad and have increasingly been used for homeland security. As of June 2012, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has authorized nearly 60 private and government entities to operate UASs in domestic airspace. The authorized entities include Federal, State and local law enforcement and academic institutions.
Chairman McCaul said in a statement that the hearing was called to examine the benefits and challenges to increased domestic use of UASs.
“Unmanned aerial systems, commonly referred to as ‘drones’, have been a force multiplier in our military operations abroad and along our borders," he said in the news release. "These systems are now being used in the United States by law enforcement, government agencies and even academic institutions. Some Americans worry such systems will become invasive ‘eyes-in-the-sky’. Others say domestic drones will eventually be armed. However, no Federal agency is taking responsibility for creating comprehensive policies and regulations concerning the use of these systems domestically. Additionally, vulnerabilities to ‘drone’ hackers exist, as recently demonstrated by researchers at the University of Texas, raising concerns these vehicles could be commandeered by terrorists or others with ill intent. Our hearing will examine DHS’s role in the domestic use of unmanned aerial systems and determine the extent to which the Department is prepared to ensure
oversight of domestic drones."
In written testimony provided to the committee by Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, association president and CEO Michael Toscano said that the aircraft are employed helping search and rescue teams find a lost child, giving researchers a new understanding of hurricanes, and fighting wildfires, among other uses. He said the applications of unmanned aircraft in the United States are "virtually limitless. The incredible benefits of UAS aren't just theoretical, however; the technology is already serving important homeland security and safety functions here at home."
He cited several examples:
- U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) currently uses UAS to monitor the border to help interdict illicit trafficking. According to the CPB's Office of Air and Marine, unmanned aircraft in 2011 assisted with the seizure of thousands of pounds of narcotics and the apprehension of dozens of individuals taking part in illegal activities.
- UAS aided the response to the severe flooding of the Red River in the upper Midwest in April 2011. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protections Office, which lent the UAS to the effort, the UAS mapped more than 800 nautical miles along the flooded tributaries and basins in Minnesota and North Dakota, and provided streaming video and analysis of the areas affected by the flood such as levee integrity and ice damming. The information provided by UAS gave forecasters more accurate predictions of when and where the flooding would be at its worst.
- In 2008, NASA assisted the state of California in fighting wildfires with the use of Ikhana, a UAS equipped with advanced technology. The information about the fires collected by Ikhana was transmitted to command centers within minutes, and then distributed into the field giving firefighters crucial situational awareness.
- UAS were used to help search and rescue teams in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Scientists from the University of South Florida worked with Florida rescuers in Mississippi, in what was the first known use of small UAS for an actual disaster. Brought in to survey Pearlington, MS, within two hours, the responders had the data from the UAS showing that no survivors were trapped and that the flood waters from the cresting Pearl River were not posing an additional threat.
Tuscano also acknowledged that there are safety concerns associated with the use of the aircraft in the NAS. "As we further integrate UAS into the U.S. airspace and recognize the corresponding security and safety benefits, we are also mindful that UAS operations and the technology itself must be as safe as possible," he said. "Safety has always been a top priority for the industry, and we are already working with a variety of stakeholders to ensure unmanned aircraft are integrated safely into our nation’s airspace. The industry is in regular contact with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and we have met with, and continue to maintain an open dialogue with, representatives from the pilot community, air traffic controllers and others with an interest in aviation safety.
"Safety is also one of three main pillars of the industry’s new Code of Conduct published earlier this month. We understand and take very seriously the need to conduct UAS operations in safe manner that mitigates risk and instills confidence in our systems. Specifically with regard to safety, the guidelines recommend when and by whom UAS should be flown, address training and crew fitness requirements, call for a thorough risk assessment before each UAS flight and codify our commitment to respecting other users of the airspace, the privacy of individuals and the concerns of the public."
The committee also heard from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which has been opposed to the domestic use of UAVs because of privacy concerns. Amie Stepanovich, Association Litigation Counsel for the group, told the committee that "drones present a unique threat to privacy. Drones are designed to undertake constant, persistent surveillance to a degree that former methods of surveillance were unable to achieve. Drones are cheaper to buy, maintain, and operate than helicopters, or other forms of aerial surveillance. Drone manufacturers have recently announced new designs that would allow drones to operate for more than 48 consecutive hours,11 and other technology could extend the flight time of future drones out into weeks and months. Also, “by virtue of their design, size, and how high they can fly, [drones] can operate undetected in urban and rural environments.”
Sepanovich said that some of the primary concerns are the use of UAVs by the Department of Homeland Security with the ability to "link facial recognition capabilities ... to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Next Generation Identification database or DHS’ IDENT database, two of the largest collections of biometric data in the world, exacerbates the privacy risks. Drones could be deployed to monitor individuals in a way that was not possible previously."
She also cited a Customs and Border Protection IG's report that pointed out problems with the planning associated with UAS programs and training. She noted that the report said new UAV purchases should be suspended until CBP develops a plan that addresses “necessary operations, maintenance,and equipment.”
Regarding privacy concerns, the DHS Inspector General said that a standardized process was needed to request CBP drones for non--CBP purposes, in order to “provide transparency.”
The committee also heard from Mr. Todd E. Humphreys, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the Cockrell School of Engineering in Texas, along with representatives from the GAO and the Montgomery County, TX, Sheriff's office