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12:01 pm
Mon May 5, 2014

FAA Head: Safety, Privacy Concerns Abound In Regulating Drones

Originally published on Mon May 12, 2014 8:13 am

A number of federal agencies are grappling with rules around drones as the popularity of the unmanned aircraft is rising. The National Park Service recently banned their use in Yosemite, and the Federal Aviation Administration is under orders from Congress to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into U.S. airspace by September 2015.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta tells NPR's Robert Siegel that in writing the rules, the administration is most concerned with the safety of the national airspace.

"These aircraft operate very differently and they operate in the same airspace with a wide variety of other users," he says. "We see the potential of these and we're going about it in a very thoughtful and deliberate manner to ensure that it is done safely."

You can read more highlights from the conversation below.


Interview Highlights

On the difference between model aircraft and drones

Model aircraft are generally used by hobbyists, they're much more limited in range and they don't have the same performance characteristics. ...

On whether a person can shoot down a drone hovering over his property

We do have a lot of laws in the country that are designed to protect property or to protect your privacy. The question that is starting to be asked is, does this technology in any way change that?

You shouldn't be shooting anything down. What is clear is that you have a right to be concerned about: Is an unmanned aircraft over your property infringing ... your right to privacy? And I think that we as a government need to figure out, is there something unique about this technology that would cause us to treat it differently than the constitutional protections you already have?

On how much public concern factors into the rule-making process around drones

This is something that is very new to a lot of people. And while a lot of people see great potential, other people — in fact, sometimes the same people — have significant concern about, what does it mean? And what this really argues for is a very thoughtful, a very deliberative, a very consultative approach to how we gradually open up the skies to the use of unmanned aircraft.

On enforcing regulations on where drones can fly

We rely on our inspectors, we rely on the public, we rely on the industry — everyone plays a role in bringing information to us that helps us carry out our mandate.

I think that enforcing any rule is dependent upon the public having a good understanding of what the rules are and every citizen playing a role in working with their government to ensure that the system is safe.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Federal Aviation Administration is under orders from Congress to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into U.S. air space by September of 2015. FAA administrator Michael Huerta joins us now. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL HUERTA: Thank you. It's great to be here.

SIEGEL: And let me try to understand this. If anybody, more or less, can operate a model aircraft below 400 feet, why shouldn't businesses be able to do that, too?

HUERTA: Well the thing that we care about, first and foremost, is the safety of our national air space system. And these aircraft operate very differently and they operate in the same airspace with a wide variety of other users. We understand that Congress wants us to implement by September of next year and our emphasis is on insuring that we're able to do it very safely.

SIEGEL: But at least for now, in terms of regulations governing these craft, is it simple an extrapolation of model aircraft rules?

HUERTA: It's not. Model aircraft are generally used by hobbyists, they're much more limited in range and they don't have the same performance characteristics.

SIEGEL: Here's a hypothetical, by the way. I walk out of my house and there, about 250 feet about my lawn is a strange uninvited and frankly unwanted, unmanned flying object. Am I within my rights, assuming that I'm complying with all the gun laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, to go get a rifle and shoot it down or does whoever owns that thing have a right to hover over my property?

HUERTA: You've illustrated one of the big complex questions that we have been dealing with with the use of unmanned aircraft for a long time. And that is, how are these things used and is there the potential for them to infringe upon your right to privacy? We do have a lot of laws in the country that are designed to protect property or to protect your privacy. The question that is starting to be asked is, does this technology in any way change that?

SIEGEL: Yeah, you haven't given me the green light to shoot down the unmanned drone over my lawn yet, but I...

HUERTA: You shouldn't be shooting anything down.

SIEGEL: I shouldn't be shooting, but what I don't hear you saying that it's obvious that I'm not within my rights to get that thing off my property.

HUERTA: What is clear is that you have a right to be concerned about is an unmanned aircraft over your property infringing on your right to privacy? And I think that we as a government need to figure out, is there something unique about this technology that would cause us to treat it differently than the constitutional protections you already have?

SIEGEL: There's a recent poll by the Pew Research Center which found that 63 percent of Americans think it would be a change for the worse if personal and commercial drones were given permission to fly through most U.S. air space. As you approach rules by September of next year, how much does public opinion, does the expression of public opinion figure, or do you assume it's the shock of the new and you assume a negative reaction to it?

HUERTA: This is something that is very new to a lot of people. And while a lot of people see great potential, other people have - and, in fact, sometimes the same people, have significant concern about what does it mean? And what this really argues for is a very thoughtful, a very deliberative, a very consultative approach to how we gradually open up the skies to the use of unmanned aircraft.

SIEGEL: The way problems over the use of drones arise these days, often, someone sees video on a television station, on a news telecast and then there's an investigation of that. That suggests that a lot of enforcement is after the fact, after one sees that something has been done.

SIEGEL: How do you actually enforce regulations? Do you have any way of actually policing the skies, if a few years from now or a couple of decades from now, there are thousands of little things hovering around jut above our homes?

HUERTA: We rely on our inspectors. We rely on the public, we rely on the industry. Everyone plays a role in bringing information to us that helps us carry out our mandate.

SIEGEL: This is enforcement by crowdsourcing is what you're describing.

(LAUGHTER)

HUERTA: Well, I think that enforcing any rule is dependent upon the public having a good understanding of what the rules are and every citizen playing a role in working with their government to ensure that the system is safe.

SIEGEL: Mr. Huerta, thank you very much for talking with us today.

HUERTA: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Michael Huerta is the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, which is chartered by Congress with safely integrating unmanned aircraft into U.S. airspace by September of next year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.