FAA moves toward U.S. drone test sites

WASHINGTON — In a major step toward opening U.S. skies to thousands of unmanned drones, federal officials Thursday solicited proposals to create six drone test sites around the country.

The Federal Aviation Administration also posted online a draft plan for protecting people’s privacy from the eyes in the sky. The plan would require each test site to follow federal and state laws and make a privacy policy publicly available.

Privacy advocates worry that a proliferation of drones will lead to a “surveillance society” in which the movements of Americans are routinely monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the authorities.

The FAA is required by a law enacted a year ago to develop sites where civilian and military drones can be tested in preparation for integration into U.S. airspace that’s currently limited to manned aircraft.

The law also requires that the FAA allow drones wide access to U.S. airspace by 2015, but the agency is behind schedule, and it’s doubtful it will meet the deadline, the Transportation Department’s inspector general said in a report last year.

The test sites are planned to evaluate what requirements are needed to ensure the drones don’t collide with planes or endanger people or property on the ground. Remotely controlled drones don’t have a pilot who can see other aircraft the way an onboard plane or helicopter pilot can.

There’s also concern that links between drones and their on-the-ground operators can be broken or hacked, causing the operator to lose control of the drone. Military drones use encrypted GPS signals for navigation, which protects them from hacking, but the GPS signals used by civilian drones don’t have that protection.

“Our focus is on maintaining and improving the safety and efficiency of the world’s largest aviation system,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. “This research will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation’s skies.”

The military has come to rely heavily on drones overseas. Now there is tremendous demand to use drones in the U.S. for all kinds of tasks that are too dirty, dull or dangerous for manned aircraft. Drones also are often cheaper than manned aircraft. The biggest market is expected to be state and local police departments.

Industry experts predict the takeoff of a multibillion dollar market for civilian drones as soon as the FAA completes regulations to make sure they don’t pose a safety hazard to other aircraft. Potential civilian users are as varied as the drones themselves. Power companies want them to monitor transmission lines. Farmers want to fly them over fields to detect which crops need water. Ranchers want them to count cows. Film companies want to use drones to help make movies. Journalists are exploring drones’ newsgathering potential.

The FAA forecasts an estimated 10,000 civilian drones will be in use in the U.S. within five years.

The Defense Department says the demand for drones and their expanding missions requires routine and unfettered access to domestic airspace, including around airports and cities, for military testing and training.

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