Back in February, we wrote about a new bill passed by Congress that gave private, military and commercial drones more access to U.S. airspace. Now, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the FAA has released a list of institutions that have asked for Certificates of Authorizations (COA) to fly drones in the United States.
That fact that the U.S. Air Force, DARPA and Department of Homeland Security are flying drones is no surprise. But what about the other institutions on the list?
It includes a number of universities from all over the country, including Cornell University, Georgia Tech, Mississippi State University and Eastern Gateway Community College. It makes sense for universities to have access to U.S. airspace to fly drones — after all, they are the ones doing a lot of the research on new drone technologies, so they might as well be able to test their own creations near campus.
While it’s easy to balk at the idea of students at a small community college in eastern Ohio flying drones over the heads of our youth, remember that most drones aren’t the Hellfire missile-carrying behemoths we hear about flying over Afghanistan. Small, inexpensive drones are routinely used by filmmakers and amateur hobbyists, meaning students could learn a lot from drones without putting anybody in danger.
Still, the EFF points out that the “COA list does not include any information on which model of drone or how many drones each entity flies,” meaning while one might assume 18-year-old students are playing with $100 DIY drones, technically they could be flying anything.
Perhaps more troubling to privacy advocates, however, is the growing list of police departments gaining permission to fly drones, which includes departments in Arlington, Houston, North Little Rock, Miami-Dade County, Seattle, Polk County, FL and Gadsden, AL.
Miami, being a relatively large city and a major port of entry into the United States, seems like a reasonable candidate for UAVs. But why Gadsden, a small city of 36,719 in Alabama? Can any city, no matter what its size and needs, get authorization to fly drones over its citizens?
The FAA likely has a lot more questions to answer before privacy advocates will be satisfied. Hopefully there won’t be an incident — a crashed drone or privacy scandal — before the public gets those answers.