Concerns Over Drone Aircraft Used in the United States

aircraft drone

 Getty Images / Boureima Hama

Before Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAVs) start routinely observing Americans stealthily from above, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) needs to address two little concerns, safety, and privacy, says the Government Accountability Office (GAO).


From large Predator-like aircraft that you just might notice to tiny helicopters that can hover silently outside your bedroom window, remotely-controlled unmanned surveillance aircraft are rapidly spreading from the skies above foreign battlefields to the skies above the United States.

In September 2010, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol announced that it was using Predator B unmanned aircraft to patrol the entire Southwestern border from California to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas. By December 2011, the Department of Homeland Security had deployed even more Predator drones along the border to enforce President Obama's Mexican Border Initiative.

Besides border security duties, a variety of UAV's is increasingly being used inside the U.S. for law enforcement and emergency response, forest fire monitoring, weather research, and scientific data collection. In addition, transportation departments in several states are now using UAVs for traffic monitoring and control.

As the GAO points out in its report on Unmanned Aircraft in the National Airspace System, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) currently limits the use of UAVs by authorizing them on a case-by-case basis after conducting a safety review.

According to the GAO, the FAA and other federal agencies that have an interest in the use of UAVs, including the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the FBI, are working on procedures that would simplify the process of deploying UAVs into U.S. airspace.

Safety Concerns: Drones vs. Airplanes

As early as 2007, the FAA issued a notice clarifying its policy on the use of UAVs in the U.S. airspace. The FAA's policy statement focused on safety concerns posed by the widespread use of UAVs, which the FAA noted:

"...range in size from wingspans of six inches to 246 feet; and can weigh from approximately four ounces to over 25,600 pounds."

The rapid proliferation of UAV's also worried the FAA, which noted that in 2007, at least 50 companies, universities, and government organizations were developing and producing some 155 unmanned aircraft designs. The FFA wrote:

"The concern was not only that unmanned aircraft operations might interfere with commercial and general aviation aircraft operations, but that they could also pose a safety problem for other airborne vehicles, and persons or property on the ground."

In its recent report, the GAO outlined four primary safety concerns arising from the use of UAVs in the United States:

  • The inability for UAVs to recognize and avoid other aircraft and airborne objects in a manner similar to manned aircraft;
  • Vulnerabilities in the command and control of UAV operations. In other words, GPS-jamming, hacking and the potential for cyber-terrorism;
  • A lack of technological and operational standards needed to guide the safe and consistent performance of UAVs; and
  • A lack of comprehensive government regulations necessary to safely facilitate the accelerated integration of UAS into the national airspace system.

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 created specific requirements and deadlines for the FAA to create and begin to implement regulations that will safely allow the accelerated use of UAVs in U.S. airspace. In most cases the law gives the FAA until January 1, 2016, to meet the congressionally mandated requirements.

In its analysis, the GAO reported that while the FAA has "taken steps" to meet Congress' deadline, developing UAV safety regulation at the same time the use of UAVs is racing head is resulting in problems.

The GAO recommended that the FAA do a better job in keeping track of where and how UAV's are being used. "Better monitoring can help FAA understand what has been achieved and what remains to be done and can also help keep Congress informed about this significant change to the aviation landscape," GAO noted.

In addition, the GAO recommended that the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) examine the security issues arising from the future non-military use of UAVs in U.S. airspace and "and take any actions deemed appropriate."

Safety Concerns: Drones vs. Humans 

In September 2015, the FAA launched an investigation into the dangers of drones hitting people on the ground. The consortium that conducted the research included the University of Alabama-Huntsville; Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University; Mississippi State University; and the University of Kansas. In addition, the researchers were assisted by experts from 23 of the world's leading research institutions and 100 leading industry and government partners.

The researchers focused on the effects of blunt force trauma, penetration injuries, and lacerations. The team then classified drone vs. human collision severity according to various potentially hazardous drone features, such as fully-exposed rotors. Finally, the team conducted crash tests and analyzed kinetic energy, energy transfer, and crash dynamics data collected during those tests.

As a result of the research, personnel from NASA, the Department of Defense, FAA chief scientists, and other experts identified the three types of injuries most likely to be suffered by people hit by small drones:

  • Blunt force trauma: the type of injury most likely to be fatal
  • Lacerations: preventable by the requirement of rotor blade guards
  • Penetration injuries: effects difficult to quantify

The team recommended that research into drone vs. human collisions be continued using refined metrics. In addition, the researchers suggested the development of simplified testing methods to better simulate potential injuries and their severity.

Since 2015, the potential for drone vs. human injuries had grown substantially. According to 2017 FAA estimates, sales of small hobbyist drones are expected to rise from 1.9 million units in 2017 to 4.2 million units in 2020. At the same time, sales of larger, heavier, faster, and more potentially dangerous commercial drones could rise from 100,000 to 1.1 million, according to the FAA. 

Privacy for Security: A Worthwhile Trade-off?

Clearly, the main threat to personal privacy posed by the ever-expanding use of UAVs in U.S. airspace is the substantial potential for violations of the protection against unreasonable search and seizure ensured by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

Recently, members of Congress, civil liberties advocates, and the general public have expressed concern over the privacy implications in the use of new, extremely small UAVs equipped with video cameras and tracking devices, hovering silently in residential neighborhoods largely unnoticed, especially at night.

In its report, GAO cited a June 2012 Monmouth University poll of 1,708 randomly selected adults, in which 42% said they were very concerned about their own privacy if U.S. law enforcement started using UAS with high tech cameras, while 15% said they were not at all concerned. But in the same poll, 80% said they supported using UAV's for "search and rescue missions."

Congress is aware of the UAV vs. privacy issue. Two laws introduced in the 112th Congress: the Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act of 2012 (S. 3287), and the Farmer's Privacy Act of 2012 (H.R. 5961); both seek to limit the ability of the federal government to use UAVs to collect information pertaining to investigations of criminal activity without a warrant.

Two laws already in effect provide protections for personal information collected and used by federal agencies: the Privacy Act of 1974 and the privacy provisions of the E-Government Act of 2002.

The Privacy Act of 1974 limits the collection, disclosure, and use of personal information maintained in databases by agencies of the federal government. The E-Government Act of 2002 enhances the protection of personal information collected through government websites and other online services by requiring the federal agencies to perform a privacy impact assessment (PIA) before collecting or using such personal information.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on privacy issues related to the use of UAVs, the court has ruled on the potential infringement on privacy posed by advancing technology.

In the 2012 case of United States v. Jones, the court ruled that the prolonged use of a GPS tracking device, installed without a warrant, on a suspect's car, did constitute a "search" under the Fourth Amendment. However, the court's decision failed to address whether or not such GPS searches violated the Fourth Amendment.

In its United States v. Jones decision, one Justice observed that in respect to peoples' expectations of privacy, "technology can change those expectations" and that "dramatic technological changes may lead to periods in which popular expectations are in flux and may ultimately produce significant changes in popular attitudes. New technology may provide increased convenience or security at the expense of privacy, and many people may find the trade-off worthwhile."

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Longley, Robert. "Concerns Over Drone Aircraft Used in the United States." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, February 16). Concerns Over Drone Aircraft Used in the United States. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Concerns Over Drone Aircraft Used in the United States." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).