WASHINGTON -- The rapidly expanding domestic drone industry is effectively unregulated when it comes to privacy protections but not for lack of trying. Congress has passed few laws regulating drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, but two clear sides emerged: a handful of lawmakers and civil liberties groups pushing for privacy restrictions are stacked against a drone caucus with dozens of House members and support from the UAV industry.
The Obama administration regularly deploys armed drones for overseas military strikes, and unarmed models of the same Predator drones are used to patrol U.S. borders.
But smaller models are now being used domestically for search-and-rescue missions, detecting forest fires, some law enforcement efforts and scientific research. Supporters tout these and other benefits, but many civil libertarians cringe at the thought of government-controlled eyes in the sky.
The Federal Aviation Administration has issued 300 special permits to drone operators and is drafting safety rules that would allow more drones in U.S. airspace by 2015, as required by the FAA reauthorization law Congress approved last year.
An estimated 30,000 drones could fill American skies by 2020, and experts agree the industry is on the verge of unprecedented domestic growth. It could develop into an $89 billion industry and create thousands of jobs within a decade, according to a report by the Teal Group, an aerospace consulting firm.
Some privacy advocates fear that the government could use drones for unlawful surveillance on U.S. soil. The FAA has not looked much into privacy issues the agency has said it is ill-equipped to do so and no current laws require federal agencies to consider privacy while regulating drones.
A few members of Congress want to fill the void. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, introduced the Preserving American Privacy Act in February. The bill would ban the government and law enforcement agencies from using drones to conduct surveillance on individuals or their property without obtaining a warrant, and evidence gathered without a court order would be impermissible at trials. There are exceptions for emergencies, when consent is given and when the drone is within 25 miles of the U.S. border, where many are already stationed.
Another key provision explicitly bans outfitting domestic drones with firearms or other lethal weapons. There is also a built-in mechanism for Justice Department oversight.
Legitimate uses by government and private citizens do occur, but a nosy neighbor or a Big Brother government does not have the right to look into a window without legitimate cause or, in the case of the government, probable cause, Poe said on the House floor.
Privacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center have supported these efforts, which they say are overdue. But there is strong opposition from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the drone lobby, which claims the bills are introduced under the guise of privacy and are designed instead to debilitate their market. It spent $60,000 lobbying against the Poe bill in 2012.
As U.S. involvement in overseas wars wind down, defense and aerospace corporations are shifting focus to domestic markets. Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, whose influence with Congress is established because of their role as defense contractors, are among the companies that comprise the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
The association represents the industry at congressional hearings, holds conferences and promotes commercial and government uses of drones a term the industry never uses.
The trade group works closely with the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, formed in 2009 by Reps. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., and Henry Cuellar, D-Texas. A few dozen House members have since joined, and their stated mission is to support the industry and rapidly develop and deploy more systems in the United States.
Congressman McKeon recognizes the cause for privacy concerns and firmly believes that those concerns need to be addressed by the appropriate federal agencies, spokeswoman Alissa McCurley said. It is his belief that both the Department of Justice and Commerce Department are best equipped and responsible for regulating the law enforcement and commercial unmanned aerial systems markets.
The four largest members of the lobbying group General Atomics, Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Lockheed Martin gave more than $1.4 million in campaign contributions to drone caucus members in 2012.
Before that, the group worked to drum up support for the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which President Barack Obama signed last year. The law includes a provision that authorizes expanded civilian drone use and requires the FAA to prepare U.S. airspace for unmanned vehicles.
Forty-five of the 60 drone caucus members voted for the final version of the bill, and five were co-sponsors. Caucus member Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., wrote the amendment that directs the FAA to expedite integration of drones into U.S. airspace by 2015. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International even boasted of writing the parts of the law word-for-word, according to internal documents leaked by Republic Report, a nonpartisan website that investigates lobbying.
We were a contributing factor, said Mario Mainera, the organizations government relations manager. We work with committee staff in providing provisions that our members supported and requested. We work on behalf of our membership.
Polls show members of the public view drones in American skies with a skeptical eye, and the aircraft are still largely associated with military uses in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
Some state legislatures and city councils are taking up the issue of domestic drone use and regulation.
Charlottesville, Va., in February became the first city to ban drones, and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell could sign a bipartisan bill prohibits all UAVs in the state for two years. Similar bans recently were passed by the Montana Senate and the North Dakota House, and anti-drone legislation is pending in 28 other states.
These efforts complicate the federal governments plan to prepare domestic airspace for drones. The FAA missed its Dec. 31, 2012, deadline to select six drone test sites and blamed privacy issues for delaying the evaluation process. An FAA official said test sites would likely be selected by the end of the year.
Charlottesville, Va., takes on drones