Congress questions domestic use of drones

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file photo courtesy University of North Dakota

Updated with comments from Congressional testimony:

Members of Congress are asking questions this week about domestic use of unmanned aircraft systems. Commonly known as drones, UAS are currently prohibited in the national airspace except in cases where the Federal Aviation Administration gives waivers for use by law enforcement, government agencies or research universities.

The U.S. House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management held a hearing Thursday to ask what role the Department of Homeland Security will play in oversight and if the agency is prepared for expanded use of unmanned aircraft.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses unmanned aircraft to patrol the northern and southern borders.

A growing number of law enforcement agencies are using small unmanned aircraft. In our region the only law enforcement UAS program I’m aware of is the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s department.

Congress has ordered the FAA to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace by 2015. The agency is expected to announce regulations for integration by the end of this year.

The chairman of the homeland security subcommittee, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, notes that unmanned aerial systems are a boost to military and border control operations, but their growing use concerns many citizens.

“These systems are now being used in the United States by law enforcement, government agencies and even academic institutions,” McCaul said in a statement. “Some Americans worry such systems will become invasive ‘eyes-in-the-sky’. Others say domestic drones will eventually be armed. However, no Federal agency is taking responsibility for creating comprehensive policies and regulations concerning the use of these systems domestically.

“Additionally, vulnerabilities to ‘drone’ hackers exist, as recently demonstrated by researchers at the University of Texas, raising concerns these vehicles could be commandeered by terrorists or others with ill intent. Our hearing will examine DHS’s role in the domestic use of unmanned aerial systems and determine the extent to which the Department is prepared to ensure oversight of domestic drones.”

Here’s a link to the hearing webcast.

How unmanned aircraft are integrated into national airspace could have a big economic effect in Minnesota and North Dakota.

The University of North Dakota in Grand Forks and Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls are leaders in training unmanned aircraft crews. The region is angling for one of six UAS test sites to be chosen by the FAA. Those test sites will likely attract aerospace businesses and investment.

The Air Force is also developing an unmanned aircraft mission at the Grand Forks Air Force Base. The FAA recently approved restricted airspace in North Dakota specifically for UAS training missions.

Subcommittee Chairman, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas said the Department of Homeland Security declined to appear before his subcommittee.

Michael Toscano, President and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International did not appear before the subcommittee but submitted testimony pointing out the value of unmanned aircraft:

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) currently uses UAS to monitor the border to help interdict illicit trafficking. According to the CPB’s Office of Air and Marine, unmanned aircraft in 2011 assisted with the seizure of thousands of pounds of narcotics and the apprehension of dozens of individuals taking part in illegal activities,” Toscano wrote.

“UAS aided the response to the severe flooding of the Red River in the upper Midwest in April 2011. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protections Office, which leant (sp) the UAS to the effort, the UAS mapped more than 800 nautical miles along the flooded tributaries and basins in Minnesota and North Dakota, and provided streaming video and analysis of the areas affected by the flood such as levee integrity and ice damming. The information provided by UAS gave forecasters more accurate predictions of when and where the flooding would be at its worst.”

Then there was this testimony from Amie Stepanovich, Association Litigation Counsel Electronic Privacy Information Center, who pointed out the Department of Homeland Security has no privacy policy regarding the use of UAS even though she testified;

“Drones may also carry infrared cameras, heat sensors, GPS, sensors that detect movement, and automated license plate readers. Drones are currently being developed that will carry facial recognition technology, able to remotely identify individuals in parks, schools, and at political gatherings.”

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