U.S. commercial drone industry struggles to take off

State laws and a slow-moving FAA are stifling early growth, trade group says

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As a result, lawmakers want to impose new search warrant requirements on drone use even though no such requirements apply to the use of other aviation assets by law enforcement, Gielow said. Other proposed laws seek to restrict drone operators flying over private property from capturing images of people and private property without their explicit permission, even though there are statutes already on the books that prohibit such actions.

"This is a big data issue. It has nothing to do with the platform" that's used to collect the data, Gielow said. The same privacy and security restrictions that apply to the use of data collected by other means apply to data collected by drones, he said.

The mere fact that drones enable a new type of data collection does not mean that data collected by such aircraft is exempt from existing data security and privacy laws. "Things like Peeping Tom laws and stalking and harassment laws are just as applicable to unmanned aircraft as they are to manned aircraft," he said.

By proposing and adopting anti-drone laws, legislators are trying to curtail drone use even before people have really begun using the technology in the U.S., Gielow said. He argued that passing drone restrictions now would be "like trying to restrict the Internet or the telephone" before those technologies were actually widely used.

The FAA's continued inability to come up with rules for commercial drone use is another problem, he added. The lack of rules makes it harder for the FAA to claim authority over civilian drone use in the U.S., according to Gielow.

Earlier this year, for instance, the FAA attempted to fine an individual $10,000 for using a drone to capture promotional video. The FAA claimed the person had used a drone in a dangerous and reckless manner.

However, an administrative judge from the National Transportation Safety Board struck down the fine on appeal, noting that the FAA could not enforce rules for civilian drones that don't exist.

"Clearly, we have a lot more work to do," Gielow said. Many of the laws being passed or proposed are based on very little real information, he claimed. "Education is going to be key, but it is tough to educate people about drones if they are not being used," he said.

A spokeswoman from the FAA said on Wednesday that one of the top priorities of the FAA administrator is to publish rules for small UAVs later this year.

"The rulemaking is very complex, and we want to ensure that we strike the right balance of requirements for small [drones] to help foster growth in this emerging industry," the spokeswoman said in an email.

The FAA's task, she explained, is to figure out how to integrate drones safely into the busiest, most complex airspace in the world. To address that challenge, she added, "we are having regular conversations with a few distinct industries to see if we can expand authorized commercial operations for limited applications in very controlled environments."

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His email address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

See more by Jaikumar Vijayan on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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