Written by Jennifer Lynch
EFF recently received a trove of documents from the FAA in response to our Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, offering new insights into the public and private use of drones in the United States—including where they’re flying, why they’re being used, and what their capabilities are. These new documents include the never-before-released Special Airworthiness Certificates (SACs) from all private companies authorized to fly drones (list available here)
Here are a few things we’ve discovered so far in our review of the material.
With some exceptions, drone flights in the U.S. have been all about developing and testing surveillance technology. The North Little Rock Police Department, for instance, wrote that their SR30 helicopter-type drone “can carry day zoom cameras, infrared cameras, or both simultaneously.” Not to be outdone, the Seattle Police Department’s drone comes with four separate cameras, offering thermal infrared video, low light “dusk-dawn” video, and a 1080p HD video camera attachment. The Miami-Dade Police Department and Texas Department of Public Safety have employed drones capable of both daytime and nighttime video cameras, and according to the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Certificate of Authorization (COA) paperwork, their drone was to be employed in support of "critical law enforcement operations.”
However, the FAA didn’t just rubber stamp all drone requests. For example, the Ogden Police Department wanted to use its “nocturnal surveillance airship [aka blimp] . . . for law enforcement surveillance of high crime areas of Ogden City.” The FAA disapproved the request, finding Odgen’s proposed use “presents an unacceptable high risk to the National Airspace System (NAS).”
Several of the requests for drone flights in the U.S. were filed so that manufacturers could show off their aircraft to potential buyers. Unmanned Systems, Inc., for one, wanted permission to “perform demonstrations and train customer crews” on their Sandstorm drone. (p. 37) Not above a little name-dropping, the company explained that they were looking for approval “for a one-time use market survey event hosted by Montana State Senator Ryan Zinke”(p. 41).
Similarly, Telford Aviation—makers of a lighter-than-air (LTA) drone—sought permission to “determine if a suitable market exists for a LTA UAS [Unmanned Aircraft System] aircraft and to demonstrate to prospective customers the advantages associated with a LTA UAS.” The company noted that “prospective customers, both civilian and government, will have the opportunity to see actual flight characteristics and be afforded the opportunity to attach different payloads to the LTA UAS aircraft for evaluation.”
As more and more drones are allowed in the U.S., the need for pilots should increase as well. That would explain why several of the COA applicants were public entities hoping to train the next generation of drone operators. The City of Herington, Kansas wrote that they want to provide student training for a drone platform, and Eastern Gateway Community College asked for permission to offer training in drone operation, including “the use of and integration of UAS payload systems as a safe and effective tool for law enforcement, emergency responders and other government agencies.” Texas A&M further wanted to examine “mixed human-robot team processes” and “semi-autonomous pilot assistance technologies,” with a focus on emergency response.
The applications frequently discuss contingency procedures, but given that most of the vehicles are lightweight and will be flown (at least at this stage) over unpopulated areas, the danger from falling drones is relatively minimal for most Americans (though not without risk, as Montgomery County, Texas and the U.S. Navy found out recently). Honeywell International, however, had to use some verbal acrobatics in discussing its MAV drone—a “ducted-fan vehicle,” or what is essentially an engine that lifts itself off the ground. The catch, as Honeywell writes, is that “if the engine is starved, the vehicle will lose thrust and the MAV flight path will become a gravity-dominated ballistic trajectory with an eventual ground impact” (p. 93). In other words, look out below.
Since the FAA first started releasing records to EFF, the public has been pushing back on broad and suspicionless use of drones by law enforcement. At the request of reporters, advocacy organizations and local city councils, public agencies have been required to justify their drone purchases and develop clear policies on when and under what conditions they will use drones for surveillance. In light of this public pressure, the Seattle Police Department recently released records in response to a public records request from our friend Glen Milner and included a copy of its policies for use of unmanned aerial systems (UASs) (p. 3). These policies include some limitations on use and a requirement that the Department log all drone flights—a step in the right direction.
This new information is important, but it’s only a start. With the help of MuckRock, EFF is asking the Internet community to join us in pushing for even more transparency around the use of drones for domestic surveillance. If you’d like to find out how your local law enforcement agency may be using drones, please visit Muckrock's site to submit your online public records request.
You can find the records referenced above here (click on "Documents").
(Special thanks to EFF Intern Max Mishkin for his help with this blog post)
Jennifer Lynch is a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and works on open government, transparency and privacy issues as part of EFF’s FOIA Litigation for Accountable Government (FLAG) Project.