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Government Privacy United States

FAA Bill Authorizes Surveillance Drones Over US 294

Posted by samzenpus
from the eye-in-the-sky dept.
fyngyrz writes "Congress passed a bill this week that makes it easier for the government to fly unmanned spy planes in U.S. airspace. From the article: 'The FAA Reauthorization Act, which President Obama is expected to sign, also orders the Federal Aviation Administration to develop regulations for the testing and licensing of commercial drones by 2015. Privacy advocates say the measure will lead to widespread use of drones for electronic surveillance by police agencies across the country and eventually by private companies as well.'"
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FAA Bill Authorizes Surveillance Drones Over US

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  • Not cost-effective (Score:5, Informative)

    by captainpanic (1173915) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @08:21AM (#38980319)

    Why spy on your citizens when the overwhelmingly large majority never do anything seriously wrong?
    Seems this is not a cost-effective way to catch some bad guys.

    Of course, it is cheaper than have helicopters with a 2-man crew... but "cheaper than ridiculously expensive" can still mean "too expensive".

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 09, 2012 @08:38AM (#38980451)

    There was an article on the bbc yesterday about small UAV's being used to verify crop types etc etc for the purpose of auditing EU farming subsidies. Certain subsidies are dependant upon farmers keeping wide headlands of wild flowers etc and there is also a subsidiy called "set aside" paid for taking land out of production. They were saying that in countries such as spain which has a large number of small fields and hilly terrain UAV's were far more practical than satelite imagery (shadows in valleys etc) as they allowed oblique imagery not just top down

  • by ewanm89 (1052822) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @09:09AM (#38980791) Homepage
    FAA has no regulations over privacy, it's not their department. FAA regulations are limited to air worthiness, traffic control, flying altitudes... And there is nothing in the current laws that stop unmanned aircraft from that standpoint (in fact, as unmanned predates manned flight technically, though it was unpowered) there have always been regulations to allow some form of unmanned aircraft.
  • Re:Don't worry (Score:5, Informative)

    by sheetsda (230887) <doug.sheetsNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Thursday February 09, 2012 @09:13AM (#38980843)

    I hope these things are at least carrying transponders so they even make a blip on the radar at all.

    They'd still show up on radar without a transponder and it would make no sense at all to not have a $200 transponder on $200,000 drone. Without a transponder ATC just wouldn't have any altitude data (if turning off your transponder was all it took to hide from radar, radar would be useless in a war situation where the enemy is trying to hide - obviously not the case - and there would be no need for stealth aircraft). Aircraft are required have to be carrying an altitude reporting transponder to enter most controlled airspace for safety reasons. Aircraft are required to contact ATC prior to entering, and/or stay in continuous contact with ATC also for safety reasons.

    The FAA isn't stupid when it comes to safety (you might even say they're borderline paranoid). They won't give arbitrary exceptions to safety-related regulations.

  • Re:Don't worry (Score:5, Informative)

    by jittles (1613415) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @09:22AM (#38980933)

    They'd still show up on radar without a transponder and it would make no sense at all to not have a $200 transponder on $200,000 drone. Without a transponder ATC just wouldn't have any altitude data (if turning off your transponder was all it took to hide from radar, radar would be useless in a war situation where the enemy is trying to hide - obviously not the case - and there would be no need for stealth aircraft).

    We aren't talking about Military radar installations, NORAD will already know where those drones are. We are talking about FAA style ATC, which DOES depend on transponders. If you have a big enough bird, you may get painted by ATC, but these drones are probably small enough and low enough that they will not give good returns. Even if there is a return, it may just look like a flock of birds, you never know. Without transponders, these drones will be dangerous. Even with transponders they may be dangerous for people flying in VFR and below ATC altitudes.

  • Re:Don't worry (Score:5, Informative)

    by michelcolman (1208008) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @09:37AM (#38981123)

    There are two kinds of "radar" for ATC: Primary radar sends out a signal and listens for reflections, often picking up flocks of birds and even clutter from ground objects like windmills while not being able to detect many smaller objects. Secondary radar relies on transponders: it sends out signals and puts a blip on the screen for every coded reply it gets from aircraft transponders. It is much more precise, which is why ATC pretty much exclusively uses secondary radar. Things without a transponder do NOT show up on their screen. If there is ever an emergency requirement to locate some flying object without a transponder, they usually have to contact the military who still use primary radar.

    You are quite correct that aircraft are required to have transponders in most controlled airspace. I just hope this applies to unmanned drones as well, and the people operating those drones keep them out of controlled airspace. But what if they are doing surveillance on someone close to an airport? ("close" meaning 20 miles or so). How do they coordinate with ATC? I personally have no idea, but I hope they are in contact somehow.

  • Re:Don't worry (Score:5, Informative)

    by yabos (719499) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @10:29AM (#38981779)
    Depends on the size, yes. ATC here can detect single seat gliders 20+ miles away. Gliders have a big wingspan yes, but their cross section is quite small. The radar used by ATC does not require a transponder for something to show up on their screen. Likewise, you can have a transponder that won't even show your altitude but will just send a reply back to their ping with either code 1200(VFR outside controlled airspace), or some code given by ATC. Then you can have the Mode C(soon we will have mode S), which you can switch to altitude reporting as well as back to non-altitude reporting.
  • Re:Don't worry (Score:4, Informative)

    by michelcolman (1208008) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @10:33AM (#38981847)

    "1200" is the transponder code for VFR aircraft (VFR = flying visually) that have not had a specific code assigned to them. Their transponder is working, and is actively transmitting "1200". Transponder codes are 4 digit octal codes between 0000 and 7777. Some of them have a special meaning (for example, 7700 means emergency, 1200 means VFR). So "all those 1200's on a scope" do have transponders.

    Some civilian radars do indeed have primary radar as well, as a backup, but they only use it when they need it. It usually cannot measure altitude, is less precise, and has trouble with smaller composite aircraft (like, say... drones). And a great many civilian radar stations simply don't even have it, relying on the military in the rare cases where they do need it. Certainly in Europe.

  • by d3ac0n (715594) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @11:20AM (#38982633)

    I know everyone here in /. is going to be all up in arms over this as either police state violations of privacy or the "military-industrial complex" attacking citizens (thus the first post) But you all need to know that this was a MUCH less problematic bill than the regulations that the FAA was coming up with ON THEIR OWN.

    The FAA was working on a new set of rules and regs that would have put UAV use and development COMPLETELY into the hands of the big military provider companies (Northrop Grumman, Boeing, etc.) Basically they started a new SUAS (Small Unmanned Aerial Systems, the formal name for what we call a UAV) rule process and completely left out ALL the small business and FPV hobbyist (not to mention regular citizen) concerns. The bill passed in Congress is actually a direct reaction to that and is designed to MINIMIZE the lock-in that the "Militray-Industrial complex" has on the sales and USE of SUASs in the United States.

    It also has large set-asides for Hobbyist users (such as myself) and for regular citizens to create and use SUAS technology. Basically, it leaves WIDE OPEN the door for regular citizens to "watch the watchers". It's not perfect, and there are some restrictions in there that should be lifted or modified, but it's far and away better than what the unelected FAA members were about to do under the influence of "The Military-Industrial Complex".

    This is why I'm conservative. Bureaucracies are by far and away the easiest things for Big Corp. or the MIC to corrupt. Bureaucrats are unelected, unaccountable, and largely uncontrollable. Thus large centralized governments INEVITABLY become corrupt, regardless of how many "controls" we put on them. (in the end, they just ignore the law anyway, so why have them?)

    If concerned citizens hadn't started action on this item in time, the FAA's version of the rules would have gone into force and citizens and small businesses would have been completely locked out of SUAS and possibly even HOBBY airplane use. It would have been very bad indeed.

    So while I'm not entirely satisfied with the new law, it is FAR better than the alternative we would have received otherwise. (Sadly, because of the existence of over-sized and corrupt bureaucracies like the FAA, the "Just leave us alone" option wasn't available.)

  • by d3ac0n (715594) on Thursday February 09, 2012 @11:28AM (#38982763)

    Oh, a last point I forgot to mention;

    Prior to this there WERE NO restriction on SUAS use in US airspace. police and the military were ALREADY using SUAS to overfly and surveil citizens and crooks alike.

    This bill just ensures that we citizens have the right to both have fun with home brew SUAS tech AND to "Watch the watchers" by flying our own SUAS units.

    It also allows regular citizens the room to build and sell SUAS tech and build their own companies to compete against the "Big Boys" in the MIC. So it's generally good overall.

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