Coauthored with John Villasenor. The Washington Post, April 20, 2012.
In February, President Obama signed into law a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that requires the agency — on a fairly rapid schedule — to write rules opening U.S. airspace to unmanned aerial vehicles. This puts the FAA at the center of a potentially dramatic set of policy changes that stand to usher in a long list of direct and indirect benefits. But the FAA is not a privacy agency. And although real privacy concerns have arisen about these aircraft, asking the agency to take on the role of privacy czar for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) would be a mistake.
UAVs, commonly known as drones, offer real promise for an array of domestic applications. In an era of ever-tighter budgets, they could dramatically reduce the cost to law enforcement agencies and private companies involved in gathering vital — in some cases, lifesaving — information. UAV research and innovation are driving the creation of companies and the jobs that accompany them. Many of these innovations are pushing the frontiers of robotics in ways that will help U.S. competitiveness in this industry and beyond.
But like any new technology, UAVs can bring challenges as well. The FAA has been charged with figuring out, by the middle of next month, how to expedite the licensing of certain government drones. It is also supposed to develop, by later this year, a comprehensive plan for the integration of private UAVs into U.S. airspace by late 2015.
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