Regulating drones a daunting challenge

May 12, 2014
Despite their public safety potential, much work remains in determining how UAVs should be used

"Look up in the sky!  It’s a bird!  It’s a plane!  No, it’s....."  For those of a certain age the only response would be Superman.  Nowadays, however, it is more likely to be "the neighbor’s drone again."  Drones, also called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or more accurately, Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), have been in existence since the mid-19th century when they consisted of hot air balloons filled with bombs that were launched by the Austrians in an unsuccessful attempt to conquer Venice. In modern terms, a drone is an aircraft that does not have an onboard human pilot.  It may be remotely controlled by a pilot on the ground or be completely autonomous and flown by computers.

Drone technology has advanced significantly since those early days where most efforts were directed toward military applications, predominantly to provide target practice for anti-aircraft gunners in the early part of the 20th century. After the Soviet Union shot down Francis Gary Powers in the U-2 spy plane in 1960, the U.S. Air Force began a classified program to develop unmanned aircraft in earnest, mainly for surveillance purposes using photography.  The first UAV capable of real-time surveillance, called the Tadiran Mastiff, was developed by Israel in 1973 after the Yom Kippur War to provide high-resolution video via a radio data link. This aircraft could remain in the air for seven hours, thus providing unprecedented on-station endurance.

Current military drones can range from insect size to the equivalent of a Boeing 757.  They are used both in surveillance and offensive combat roles.  The Black Hornet Nano, in use by the British Army, is a micro unmanned vehicle that looks like a small helicopter.  It measures approximately four-by-one-inch and weighs about half an ounce.  It contains a camera that can provide both full motion video and still photos and has a flight time of about 25 minutes. Combat drones that carry ordnance, typically missiles, include the well-known Predator and Reaper. 

Under development is the Triton which has a wingspan of 130 feet and an array of sensors that can provide a 360-degree view in a radius of 2,000 miles. It will be able to sustain operations for 24 hours at an altitude of 50,000 feet.  Aviation Week has reported development of a large unmanned reconnaissance aircraft called the RQ-180 that incorporates stealth technology.

In more recent years, the uses of drones have spread well beyond military applications into the civilian sphere. However, this expansion has surpassed the capability of the government to regulate their use adequately at the present time.  In 2012, Congress instructed the Federal Aviation Administration to "develop a comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system."  As a consequence, the FAA has begun to develop regulations to ensure that unmanned aerial vehicles can operate safely and be integrated into the civilian airspace without putting existing manned aircraft, people and property on the ground at risk. 

The FAA has authorized the use of unmanned aircraft in the civilian airspace since 1990 but, by policy, limited its uses to those which relate to public safety such as firefighting, search and rescue, disaster relief, law enforcement, border surveillance, military training and testing and evaluation.  These unmanned aircraft, the FAA states, should fly only under controlled conditions and not be permitted over major urban areas.  Model aircraft typically used by hobbyists are covered, according to the FAA, by a recreational use exemption and limited to altitudes below 400-feet above ground level in areas that are distant from airports and air traffic.  The FAA has specifically stated that this exemption does not apply to individuals or companies that plan to operate model aircraft for business purposes.

The challenge that creating and enforcing such regulations pose can be exemplified by the controversy surrounding a fatal automobile crash that occurred in Hartford, Conn. in January. Police officers saw a drone flying over the scene of the crash while the deceased occupants were still in the car. Although the victims of the crash were not visible from the air, the potential issue of privacy violations caused by recording a crash site was considered to be a concern.  In addition, the FAA has stated in this case that it was not investigating privacy, but safety, and wants to determine whether the drone itself may have caused the accident by flying in a reckless manner. Legal issues with regard to unmanned aircraft systems are controversial and still in flux. Connecticut attorney Peter Sachs argues on his website, the Drone Law Journal, that the federal government has no authority to regulate the operation of remote-controlled model aircraft and thus, the individual operating his drone over the traffic accident violated no law, including privacy, since taking a photograph in a public area is legal.

The FAA recently filed a complaint, carrying a $10,000 fine, against the pilot of a drone that flew over, and took video of, the University of Virginia’s medical school campus and then sold the film to an advertising agency.  A federal judge ruled in March that the flight was legal and that the FAA did not have the authority to prohibit the commercial use of an airplane operated by a hobbyist. The FAA indicated that it plans to appeal that decision.

Amazon has proposed offering drone delivery of small products with a service called Prime Air and has produced a video showing how this might work. The Washington Post reported, however, that due to concern about the reaction of the FAA, this video was produced outside of the U.S.. While the Amazon plan is appealing, there are many hurdles, beside legal, to overcome.  These include the ability to control multiple unmanned aerial systems flying in an urban environment without hitting other aircraft, people or stationary objects, locating a place to land to safely deposit a package and the flight time available using battery power. In January, the Minnesota brewery Lakemaid tested a drone system to make deliveries of cases of beer to ice fishermen. However, when the FAA saw a YouTube video advertising the beer delivery drone they order the company to stop. It is possible that the brewery was attempting to emulate the beer delivery drone that debuted last August at the Oppikoppi Music Festival in South Africa, where individual glasses of beer were dropped by parachute to attendees.

Flight navigation by drones usually requires the use of multiple sensors such as radar and laser range finders which are heavy and consume battery power rapidly. An alternative possibility, however, comes from the artificial intelligence software that a company called Neurula plans to install in unmanned aerial systems by the end of 2014. This software mimics animal brains and can be trained to identify aircraft in a variety of weather conditions and ignore objects that are not a threat to flying.

Foreign governments are also active in creating and utilizing drones for commercial use. The United Arab Emirates has launched a contest with a prize of $1 million to invent drones to deliver government services that could include document delivery to the public, traffic monitoring and geographic surveys.  Fingerprint or eye pattern recognition will be used to confirm the recipient’s identity and Google map technology will be used to locate the customer’s home for delivery.

The uses for drones seem to proliferate almost daily in areas that include farming, law enforcement, environmental research, monitoring forest fires, medical applications and damage assessment in dangerous environments. In March 2011, a Northrup Grumman Global Hawk with a 115-foot wingspan flew over the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant shortly after it had been severely damaged by a tsunami in order to collect data about the extent of the damage.  Subsequently, a Honeywell T-Hawk, at only 18 pounds and 8-inches in diameter and thus much smaller and maneuverable than the Global Hawk, was able to fly within a few feet of, and look closely into, the damaged reactors.

The military has begun to test a vertical take off and landing (VTOL) helicopter-like drone known as the Black Knight Transformer for medical evacuation purposes. This has obvious uses in off-road locations, be they military or civilian. Similarly, Israeli-based Urban Aeronautics is developing the AirMule, a VTOL with internal rotors which allows it to fly within obstructed areas, such as wooded terrain and urban environments, where traditional helicopters are unable to operate. The AirMule would be capable of flying either via remote control or autonomously and perform evacuation missions, deliver food and medical supplies or conduct close aerial inspections of structures such as bridges. Urban Aeronautics said that it has plans to release its first ambulance drone before 2020. Other types of medical assistance are also in the works. The Defikopter drone is being developed by Height Tech in Germany in order to drop defibrillators that could save heart attack victims.  In theory, this drone could be summoned using a smartphone application and would be appropriate for a congested urban environment, such as a traffic jam, which might be difficult for an ambulance to negotiate quickly.  The current six-mile flying radius, however, imposes limits on its practical utility.

A report published by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International concluded that the cumulative economic impact of UAS into the national airspace system will be over $81 billion between 2015 and 2025, along with the creation of over 100,000 new jobs, and that the predominant markets will be precision agriculture and public safety. Precision agriculture consists of applications for remote sensing to detect plant disease, recording growth rates and water levels and accurate application of fertilizers, pesticides and even seeds.  Public safety includes not only police and firefighters, but also emergency medical services providers.

In the area of law enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection  is currently operating 10 drones. These aircraft permit increased surveillance in areas that are difficult to access and search for drug smuggling transport routes. The amount of evidence collected by drones is likely to skyrocket in future years, but only Florida and Tennessee have any legislation to regulate its usage.  In those two states, unless there is a warrant, a specific need to save a life or a terrorist threat documented by the Department of Homeland Security, evidence collected by drones cannot be admitted into court. 

Although drones have been in existence for many years it is only recently that they have begun to achieve their potential. Once the FAA completes its regulations in 2015, it is estimated that the number of drones in national airspace could increase to 30,000 by 2030.  There has been much debate about the pros (improvements in disaster relief, crop monitoring, e-commerce deliveries, news reporting and public safety) and cons (concerns about privacy, enhanced surveillance, crowded airspace, corporate espionage and hacking) of drone use. As a consequence, we need to keep in mind the potential for misapplication. The drone that can deliver a pizza can also be used to smuggle narcotics and the drone that police may use for covert surveillance might also be potentially diverted by computer hackers. The BBC has predicted that we may have only begun to see "the start of an arms race between hackers and the security professionals who wish to stop them." As with so many other aspects of security it will be a race for security professionals to keep up with advancements in technology that can also be misused.

About the Author: Dr. Steven Hausman is president of Hausman Technology Keynotes (  He speaks professionally and conducts briefings on a wide array of topics related to technology, science and security that include nanotechnology, robotics, 3D printing, bionics (artificial limbs and organs) and radio frequency identification (RFID).  He can be contacted via his website or his LinkedIn profile at