ACLU of Ohio Policy Coordinator Melissa Bilancini recently went under cover at the 2nd Annual Ohio UAS Conference. This is an account of what she learned…

What’s the FAA got to do with it?

In short: everything. I learned in today’s workshop on regulations that Congress tasked the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with incorporating drones into the national airspace system, and developing six test sites where such integration can be tested. (The national airspace system ensures safe air travel above the U.S. and is regulated by the FAA.)

Currently, there are some challenges and limitations to fully integrating drones into the national airspace. All aircraft flying outside of restricted space are required to “see and avoid” other aircraft. Drones don’t have the ability to see and avoid, so the FAA requires a second operator who can watch while the pilot flies it. Drones can only fly out of sight of the second operator if they have special clearance and a specified flight pattern away from which the FAA can direct other flights (so the planes don’t run into each other.) Because of these limitations, the FAA allows limited drone use by public and private sector.

According to those I spoke with, the industry wants to be able to fly drones whenever they want, wherever they want. They are supposed to get this in 2015, when the FAA “opens the skies” to drones.

However, before they can do so, drones’ inability to “see and avoid” must be addressed. The industry calls the solution “sense and avoid” technology. Accurate, low-cost sensors must be developed, and integrated into both manned and unmanned planes.

I mentioned above that the FAA has been tasked with creating six test sites at which solutions to these problems can be, well, tested. Test site applications have been submitted from 37 states, including Ohio. We should learn if Ohio is selected by the end of the year.

While the FAA’s primary concern is air safety, they will be creating a privacy policy for each of the six sites. In February, the FAA published proposed privacy requirements for test site operators. These are the suggested changes the ACLU proposed. It’s important to note, these privacy requirements are only for the test sites. Legislation is still needed to ensure privacy protections for the entire state.