Open season on new generation of small UAVs?

We've all seen many changes in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology over the past several years. We've witnessed the evolution of UAVs as purely reconnaissance aircraft of many different shapes and sizes, to hybrid reconnaissance and attack unmanned aircraft, and soon we will see the first all-fighter UAVs operating from aircraft carriers.

Now we're on the verge of a new fundamental change in the development and use of UAVs, and I don't think everyone's going to like it. Air traffic management experts in the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in Washington are preparing a new rule this year that would open up vast new opportunities for operating small UAVs in civil airspace.

This is good news for UAV developers, who have labored under sometimes-difficult FAA rules that often require special FAA certifications to operate even small and simple UAVs from parking lots and back yards. It might not be such good news for thieves and fugitives, as well as for anyone who values privacy in an ever-more-intrusive world.

FAA officials say the new UAV regulations, which would make it easier to operate these small aircraft, could be a boon for law enforcement to conduct surveillance, traffic patrols, and other aerial work to replace or augment far-more-expensive manned helicopters.

Those who also could benefit are remote sensing companies, which could enhance satellite imagery with photo data taken from small UAVs, farmers who could use small UAVs to identify areas in their fields that need extra water or fertilizer, and even hobbyists designing new kinds of inexpensive sensor payloads.

Those small sensor payloads are worrying some folks. With enhanced access to airborne sensors, privacy advocates say the wrong kinds of eyes in the sky might be checking up on the wrong kinds of people. Put small UAVs in the hands of the Paparazzi, and what happens to privacy? Think about celebrities who own large estates with well-guarded perimeters against prying eyes.

Some, undoubtedly, will take matters into their own hands, and this is where the situation could get a little awkward. Last month at a privately owned plantation in South Carolina, owners sponsored a pigeon shoot for an invited group of hunters. An animal rights group, taking exception to this kind of event, tried to photograph the pigeon shoot using a UAV.

The presence of the UAV caused the shooting party to disperse quickly, since few, if any, of those in attendance wanted to become targets of animal rights advocates. Before all was said and done that day, a shotgun blast from the cover of nearby trees knocked the animal rights group UAV out of the sky, causing it to crash on a roadway close by. This, in turn, caused all kinds of outcry about the alleged recklessness of discharging a firearm near a public roadway, but the point was made.

I'm wondering if the upcoming FAA rules on small UAVs will make it open season for blasting these tiny aircraft out of the sky over private property. Without a doubt, the proliferation of privately operated UAVs will open up some pointed legal questions about who controls the airspace above private property.

Furthermore, it will open up some questions about the extent to which citizens on their own property can protect their privacy from prying sensor payloads on a new generation of small UAVs. What kinds of defenses might private property owners be allowed to use against intrusive UAVs? Might a private counter-UAV technology industry spring up?

I realize the FAA is trying to put a lot of issues to rest with its upcoming new rulemaking, but it's going to open up a can of worms, as well. Will state departments of fish and game establish open seasons for small UAVs? Let the lawsuits begin.

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February 2014
Volume 25, Issue 2
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