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The Privacy Advisor | Q&A: What do the FAA's new drone regs mean? Related reading: FTC to look at smart TVs, ransomware, drones

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The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's new regulations on drones, or unmanned aerial devices, become effective late next month. The rules, which build on the privacy best practices published at the end of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's multi-stakeholder effort last month, apply to commercial use of drones weighing less than 55 pounds.

In this quick-hit Q&A, Diana Marina Cooper, senior director of legal and policy affairs at drone manufacturer PrecisionHawk, discusses what you need to know about Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations. 

For more with Cooper, check out her recent chat with Angelique Carson, CIPP/US, in this edition of The Privacy Advisor Podcast. 

The Privacy Advisor: What's in Section 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations on drones that would change the way any drone operator would do business?

Diana Marina Cooper: One of the most significant changes for operators is that they will no longer be required to hold a manned aircraft pilot’s license to operate drones commercially. Under the new framework, operators will simply be required to take an aeronautical knowledge test to demonstrate sufficient knowledge of the airspace to conduct safe operations. Another significant change is that operators will no longer need to apply for a Section 333 exemption to conduct commercial operations. Instead, they will be able to operate under the framework and parameters set out in Part 107.

The Privacy Advisor: Is the rule good or bad for the growing drone market? 

Cooper: Part 107 delivers significant wins for the drone industry. I think we will see increased interest from entrepreneurs and investors, some of which were reluctant to enter the market or fully engage because of regulatory uncertainty. We will also see increased efficiencies related to Part 107, most notably because operators will not be required to apply for a Section 333 exemption which could take months to obtain.

The Privacy Advisor: Is this a missed opportunity to get privacy in the drone market right and make sure privacy concerns don't derail the market later? 

Cooper: No, I don’t think Part 107 is the appropriate mechanism to address privacy concerns. In the lead up to the new regulations, the NTIA worked closely with industry to look at privacy issues raised by drones. That multi-stakeholder process wrapped up this spring and culminated in a set of voluntary privacy best practices which various companies, including PrecisionHawk, are adopting.

The Privacy Advisor: What would you have liked to have seen in there that wasn't? 

Cooper: Like many others in the industry, I would have liked to see rules for operating beyond visual line of sight but I knew the FAA was not ready for that yet.

The Privacy Advisor: What would you tell lawmakers if you had their undivided attention before they yay or nay-ed privacy legislation affecting the drone market? Is there misinformation? 

Cooper: I would encourage lawmakers to first look at the existing laws on the books that can be applied today to address privacy concerns associated with drones. We have well developed laws and frameworks dealing with issues like trespass, nuisance and invasion of privacy and those frameworks can, and should, be applied to drones. I would also highlight that it does not make sense to target drones specifically through legislation, as drones engage similar privacy concerns as other technologies on the market such as cell phones and cameras. 

There is a lot of misinformation about drones. For instance, there has been significant over-reporting of near misses between drones and airplanes which heightens concern among the public and lawmakers about the safety risks posed by drones. There are also misconceptions about the capabilities of drones, which sometimes fuel privacy concerns. For example, the drones that are available on the market today cannot stay aloft all day (in fact, battery life is a significant challenge), they are noisy and not very inconspicuous … they don’t make ideal tools for spying on people. Despite these realities, drones carry a certain mystique which at times translates into disproportionate regulatory scrutiny vis-à-vis other technologies.

photo credit: IMG_2149 via photopin (license)

3 Comments

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  • comment John Berard • Jul 25, 2016
    I leave it to my attorney friends to sort out the definition of "navigable airspace" in the low-flying era of the drone, but if drones are going to get, ahem, off the ground, it will be due more to stuff like this: http://fortune.com/2016/07/22/7-eleven-drone-flirtey-slurpee/
  • comment Christopher Lee • Jul 25, 2016
    "For example, the drones that are available on the market today cannot stay aloft all day (in fact, battery life is a significant challenge), they are noisy and not very inconspicuous … they don’t make ideal tools for spying on people."
    
    Individual cannot fly indefinitely. However, drones can be flown in serial or a "tag team" approach so when one drone's batteries weaken, the next drone can be launched. Using this strategy, it's possible for operators to fly drones 24/7.
    
    Also, drone manufacturers are planning to introduce quieter engines and propellers as future features/enhancements.
    
    The government, industry and civil liberties groups need to work closely together to address these risks and come up with solutions to build privacy protections into unmanned aircraft activities.
  • comment Yang Wang • Jul 26, 2016
    "as drones engage similar privacy concerns as other technologies on the market such as cell phones and cameras." Drones share similarities with these other tracking/recording technologies, but they also have key differences, at least perceived by ordinary citizens. 
    
    Our recent research has explored these perceived differences: "Flying Eyes and Hidden Controllers: A Qualitative Study of People’s Privacy Perceptions of Civilian Drones in The US" http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/popets.2016.2016.issue-3/popets-2016-0022/popets-2016-0022.xml