White House unveils plan to boost drones

White House unveils plan to boost drones
© Greg Nash

The Obama administration is mounting a new effort to expand drone use, which includes boosting funding for research, directing federal agencies to use the technology for department missions and teeing up new rules for flying drones over crowds.

The administration is building on its efforts to integrate drones into the national airspace, following on the heels of its first major rule permitting small commercial drone use in June. 

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The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced the latest slew of policy initiatives in conjunction with a Tuesday workshop to examine the future of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and aviation. 

The emerging industry is projected to generate more than $80 billion for the U.S. economy by 2025 and could create up to 100,000 jobs.

Michael Huerta, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, announced at the workshop that he plans to propose rules concerning the operation of drones directly over people by the end of this year.

The FAA is also chartering a new unmanned aircraft safety team and a drone advisory committee to analyze safety data and mitigate drone threats, as well as forming a data exchange working group with NASA.

“Safely integrating drones into the national airspace is one of our top priorities at the FAA, and it’s very important we get it right,” Huerta said. “It’s essential for our economy, and our role as a global aviation leader.”

The administration’s drone boosting effort will entail $35 million in funding over the next five years from the National Science Foundation in order to research how to design, control and apply drones to beneficial applications.

New York will be chipping in $5 million to accelerate efforts to design and manufacture drones throughout the state.

The Department of the Interior is being directed by the administration to develop programs that use unmanned aircraft systems — which can be 100 times cheaper than helicopters — to examine and maintain federal land.

The department, which oversees more land than any other agency, is already actively using the technology but hopes to expand its drone use in order to tag animals and mitigate avalanches.

Drones are being deployed across the country for a wide range of reasons, including for inspecting physical infrastructures, responding to natural disasters, conducting search and rescue missions, monitoring agriculture and studying severe storms. 

“We are able to go out and use aviation where we’ve never been able to use it before, able to find artifacts, find cultural resources we’ve never seen before,” said Mark Bathrick, director of the Office of Aviation Services for Interior.

Unmanned aircraft industry associations have also collectively agreed to implement a broad educational effort to help promote best privacy best practices, the White House announced Tuesday.

But Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyDemocratic White House hopefuls push to expand health care in US territories Democratic White House hopefuls push to expand health care in US territories Hillicon Valley: Democratic state AGs sue to block T-Mobile-Sprint merger | House kicks off tech antitrust probe | Maine law shakes up privacy debate | Senators ask McConnell to bring net neutrality to a vote MORE (D-Mass.), a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, questioned whether voluntary guidelines and best practices are enough to ensure privacy protections.

“When it comes to drone privacy, we are still essentially flying blind,” Markey said in a statement. “Drones flying overhead could collect very sensitive and personally identifiable information about millions of Americans, but right now, we don’t have sufficient safeguards in place to protect our privacy.”