FAA releases drone ‘roadmap’

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released its first “roadmap” for commercial drones on Thursday, outlining its plans for testing the possibility of integrating unmanned aircraft into the national aviation system.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the outline unveiled the difficulties that will be faced in boosting the use of non-military drones alongside commercial airplanes.

“Government and industry face significant challenges as unmanned aircraft move into the aviation mainstream,” Foxx said in a statement. “This roadmap is an important step forward that will help stakeholders understand the operational goals and safety issues we need to consider when planning for the future of our airspace.”

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Congress is requiring the FAA to develop a plan for boosting the use of drones in the U.S. by 2015. The technology is being sought by police and other law enforcement groups, but it has drawn criticism from private advocates who raised concerns about increased surveillance.

The FAA is looking to identify six sites to test the operation of drones alongside commercial flights. The agency’s roadmap requires any potential test sites to have a plan to protect the privacy of nearby citizens.

The roadmap says the full integration of drones into the nation aviation system will require collaboration between government and drone-makers as well as the development of “technical and regulatory standards, policy guidance, and operations procedures on which successful UAS integration depends.”

The roadmap adds that changes will have to be made to drone technology to allow it to be operated safely alongside commercial airplanes.

“Because of many distinct differences between UAS and manned aircraft, there are required technologies that must be matured to enable the safe and seamless integration of UAS in the [national aviation system],” the report said. “Research will be focused in the areas of sense and avoid, control and communications, and human factors.”

Privacy advocates expressed skepticism that the FAA's plan fully addressed their concerns.

"The FAA has taken an important step by recognizing that the government must address privacy as drone use expands. Requiring public disclosures of data use and retention policies, as well as mandating audits, are needed and welcome safeguards," American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Legislative Counsel Christopher Calabrese said in a statement that was provided to The Hill.

"However, it’s crucial that as we move forward with drone use, those procedural protections are followed by concrete restrictions on how data from drones can be used and how long it can be stored," Calabrese continued. "Congress must also weigh in on areas outside of the FAA’s authority, such as use by law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security, which have the ability to use drones for invasive surveillance that must be kept in check."

The ACLU is supporting a bill sponsored by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) to create a set of national guideline for privacy protections with drone use.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said on Thursday that the agency “is committed to safe, efficient and timely integration of UAS into our airspace.”

“We are dedicated to moving this exciting new technology along as quickly and safely as possible,” Huerta said in a statement.

The FAA chief is scheduled to address the increase use of drones at a forum Thursday that is being hosted by the Aerospace Industries Association.

The full FAA drone roadmap can be read here.

-This story was originally posted at 11:37 a.m. and it last updated with new information at 1:54 p.m.