President Obama last week signed the FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act of 2012. Tucked inside the legislation is a provision that could have far-reaching implications in the coming decade: widespread civilian use of unmanned aerial drones.
Until now, the use of unmanned drones has been tightly regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Use has mostly been restricted to government agencies, and applications for private use were considered on a case-by-case basis. As of last summer, the FAA had only approved about 100 applications from private parties to fly unmanned drones.
But that's about to change. According to the New York Times, the new legislation mandates that the FAA begin allowing the use of small drones (under 4.4 pounds) by law enforcement within 90 days. And the agency must overhaul its drone regulations by September 30, 2015, including allowing more widespread use of drones by private parties.
The number of potential uses for aerial drones is almost endless, ranging from the life-saving to the creepy. Drones will allow search-and-rescue personnel to more quickly locate disaster victims. The Times interviewed a photographer, Daniel Gárate, who used a drone to make fly-by videos of high-end real estate to help their owners sell them. He shut down his operation after the Los Angeles police warned him that he was violating federal regulations, but he will likely be able to resume his business in 2015.
Other uses of the drones are likely to prove controversial. Gárate says he was asked to use his drone to conduct paparazzi surveillance of Kim Kardashian's wedding. He said no, but others are likely to say yes if drone regulations are liberalized. Google and Microsoft have already added high-resolution aerial photographs to their online maps, but their coverage is currently limited. Unmanned aerial photography will allow them to achieve much higher coverage at lower cost.
The American Civil Liberties Union has argued that law enforcement use of drones threatens Americans' privacy. A December report called for new regulations to ensure that drones are not abused.
Ah the American police state! Yet another great reason to celebrate 9/11 day! Seriously, 'merica, how can we be the land of the free when Big Brother dogs our every movement??