Door-to-door drones spook lawmakers

Amazon’s planned door-to-door drone deliveries sparked lawmaker worries Monday about the need for new privacy rules to protect consumers from thousands of drones that might soon be buzzing overhead.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said laws and regulations must keep pace with technological innovations that are turning science fiction into reality.

“Amazon’s experimental drone delivery system is just the latest example of how unmanned aerial systems have the potential to change everything from retail shipping to search and rescue missions,” he said.

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“Coloradans will accept this technology only if they are certain their privacy is protected and that Americans won’t be victims of surveillance or privacy abuse by private unmanned aerial system operators.”

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who has introduced legislation that would require federal privacy protection rules for drones, said those regulations must be in place “before our skies teem with commercial drones.”

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee announced Monday that it will hold a hearing early next year on the commercial use of drones. 

“As we move forward toward integrating drones into civilian life and capitalizing on the economic opportunities they offer, we must make certain that these aircraft meet rigorous safety and privacy standards,” Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said. 

Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), who has also introduced a drone privacy bill, warned that without legislation, “companies could use drones for information gathering whether that is taking a photograph of your patio furniture or recording the make and model of your car.” 

The federal government has a ban in place on commercial drone use, but the Federal Aviation Administration is working on rules that would allow drones to fly in U.S. skies.

The stunning announcement by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in an interview Sunday on “60 Minutes,” which was accompanied with a video showing one of the drones in action, suggested the future of drone deliveries is quickly approaching.

Bezos said his company will use the aerial devices to do half-hour deliveries of small packages. Amazon employees would simply type in GPS coordinates, and the drone would fly off to deliver the package.  

“I know this looks like science fiction. It’s not,” said Bezos, who suggested actual drone deliveries are years away.

Chris Calabrese, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, predicted that Amazon’s move will “turbocharge” drone technology and will make it much easier for other private groups or government agencies to buy drones.

“Any time a major retailer like Amazon or Wal-Mart starts to employ a technology, it becomes much more widely adopted,” Calabrese said. “It becomes cheaper, it becomes more efficient, it becomes used by a lot of other people who want to get on the bandwagon.”

Calabrese said the ACLU isn’t opposed to drone use, especially by private groups, but he said Congress should limit the ability of the government to access the data collected by any drones. 

“If [drones] start to be everywhere, and you can use them for anything you want, you really do have eyes in the sky all the time,” he warned. 

But Ben Gielow, a lobbyist for the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems, which represents drone-makers, argued that Amazon’s announcement shows the promise of commercial drone use.

“Because the FAA has a blanket prohibition on use right now, there are just not a whole lot of examples to show people about how these systems could be used,” he said.

He expressed hope that Amazon’s announcement could improve the public perception of drones and build support for broad use.

“For a lot of folks when they hear the word ‘drone’ especially, they think of the large military, weaponized systems that are being used in Afghanistan,” he said. “Really what we’re talking about domestically are small systems very akin to what you see in that Amazon video.”

In its 2012 FAA reauthorization bill, Congress ordered the agency to begin licensing commercial drones by 2015. 

Within a few weeks, the FAA is expected to announce the locations of six test sites to study how to safely use drones alongside other aircraft. 

The agency released a road map for its review of increased drone use earlier this year, which included a nod to privacy concerns.

The FAA said in a statement to The Hill after the Amazon announcement that it is “committed to safe, efficient and timely integration of unmanned aircraft systems into our airspace.”

“The FAA approves UAS [unmanned aerial system] operations by public entities on a case-by-case basis,” the agency said. “So far, only a single commercial UAS operator has been approved to operate, and it is in the Arctic.”  

The FAA said it will carefully consider the impact of increased commercial drone use, despite the excitement over Amazon’s surprise proposal.

“UAS operators must abide by local, state and federal privacy laws,” the agency said. “Over the next several years the FAA will establish regulations and standards for the safe integration of remote piloted UAS to meet increased demand.”