MAPPS held a Washington Policy Lunch with group members and Congressional staffers on Wednesday, Aug. 14, in conjunction with the AUVSI’s Unmanned Systems conference.

MAPPS Executive Director John Palatiello led a discussion that touched on privacy, policy and perceptions concerns surrounding unmanned aerial systems (UASs) and the potential impact those issues could have on the geospatial profession.

Specifically, Federal Aviation Administration policies and potential Congressional legislation could shape the use of drones in the private sector.

The FAA announced it will designate six test sites for UASs in December, but many MAPPS members believe the agency appears unlikely to meet a 2015

Tim Tarpley, second from right, the deputy chief of staff and legislative director for Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), speaks at the MAPPS Washington Policy Lunch on Aug. 14, 2013. Photo credit: John Hetzler

deadline that will open up airspace for commercial use of drones.

Congress also could pose challenges. U.S. Rep. Ted Poe has proposed a bill (H.R. 637, The Preserving American Privacy Act of 2013) that would put limits on the use of unmanned aerial systems in the United States.

All of this served as a backdrop for the MAPPS meeting. Congressional staffers who took part in the lunchtime talk were Joan V. O’Hara, the deputy chief counsel for the House Committee on Homeland Security; Blas Nunez-Neto, senior professional staff member on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs; Mitch Kominsky, counsel for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform; Tim Tarpley, deputy chief of staff and legislative director for Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas); and Sang Yi, House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Following are excerpts from the conversation.

John Palatiello: All we are really talking about is a new and different platform. Aerial photography has been commerce in the United States for decades and decades and decades. There are extraordinary societal benefits that are derived from companies either working for commercial clients or private-sector clients that provide a tremendous benefit to society by capturing aerial imagery, converting that into maps and applying it for the benefit of citizens. One needs only look at dialing 911 when you have an emergency and knowing that the emergency response team has an accurate map with your address and can get the ambulance to your house. That all starts with an aerial photograph. All we are talking about now is capturing that imagery from a different platform.

Joan O’Hara: We do talk with a lot of lobbyists and industry representatives, and there’s a lot of potential for drones to bring jobs, to build industry, help the economy and serve a lot of purposes other than just national security. We’re definitely supportive of the technology.

We are not interested in creating some sort of Big Brother, surveillance society where everyone is watched 100 percent of the time. That is sort of the extreme version that some of the people on the fringes are trying to put out there. That’s definitely not the case now. We’re certainly not going in that direction.

Blas Nunez-Nueto: I’ve been following the use of drones really since the beginning of DHS. There have been some growing pains along the way, some bumps and bruises. As Joan mentioned, they have been very valuable to CBP (Customs and Border Patrol). In particular, I think these new approaches to achieve detection show a lot of promise in helping border patrol and border agents in a more effective and efficient manner.

Mitch Kominsky: I think this is a very important thing for everybody, especially the audience members today where the geospatial field is $73 million and approximately has 500,000 jobs. The truth is, we’re encountering emerging technologies, UASs and UAVs, and the current regulations are inadequate to deal with them. I think there are a lot of questions that need to be resolved. For instance, defining navigable airspace is an important way of responding to the FAA Modernization Act.

Tim Tarpley: Our bill is going after particular aspects of drones. The way I like to describe it is targeted surveillance—targeted surveillance of an individual or of their property.  Certainly our intent is not to get at mapping or geospatial or any of that technology. … But where a police department, for example, purchases a drone to determine if someone is growing marijuana in their backyard or if someone is violating a property law. We really think this would apply to that kind of usage.

There’s also a second part of our bill that deals with the private use of unmanned aerial systems. We’re only talking about private use when it’s targeting basically for surveillance or to obtain pictures or some live audio recording. We took a kind of basis of California civil law that was kind of an anti-paparazzi law. … In many jurisdictions, use that violates this is probably against the law, or subject to civil violations. We think the bill lays out a good framework for both law enforcement and private use of drones. I think it will help limit some of the fear that individuals have of drones because it will be reasonable limitations and help allow new technology to permit the use of drones.

On concerns that a Predator was diverted from border patrol to take aerial photographs of flooding of the Red River last year, and concerns that government agencies may be encroaching on possible private-sector, commercial use of drones.

O’Hara: This is my opinion, the technology is very useful for missions other than just border enforcement and national security. … And again, my opinion, I think it mapps.jpgwould be unfortunate to limit this expensive technology just for that purpose if it can be used to serve the public and to help with things like natural disasters. I know they have been used by FEMA also for tracking wildfires. So I think those are all good uses. Of course, we don’t want to infringe on what the private sector is doing, but I don’t necessarily think that they should be grounded for any other purpose than border security.

Nunez-Nueto: I tend to agree with Joan, and this is my personal opinion, that during natural disasters that are huge in scope, something like Katrina or Sandy, when it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation, I don’t know that you want to limit DHS’s ability to use whatever resources it has to help the public response to a disaster. There have to be reasonable limitations to that.

Sing Yi: I’d like to take a slight difference of opinion. … I do believe on one hand, in a holistic way to say when it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation, of course you want to use any resources you can to address any national security issues or any natural disaster issues. But at the same rate to segregate what the resources are designated for, what purposes, is a very important thing. I cannot stress that more.

On privacy concerns and possible effects of pending legislation.

Kominsky: There are a lot of legal questions that are out there. From the way we see it, it will take time to gain clarity to these issues. I think it’s going to be how and what regulations does the FAA apply, and then how is that being interpreted and combined with policy.

O’Hara: That’s one of the key factors in the judicial analysis of this question: Is the technology available for general public use? ... Does a drone that you can buy at Brookstone count as the same thing as a Predator? There are a lot of legal questions that are yet to be resolved, which makes this, I think, very interesting for lawyers.

There seem to be two main streams of thought on this. One, is that current law in terms of privacy and surveillance, particularly aerial surveillance, and the recent case with Jones, which was actually the GPS tracking, that that body of law is sufficient to address the question of drones. It’s not quite an exact fit, but there’s enough there that the principles are the same and we can adjudicate based on those principles.

The other stream of thought is that drones are significantly different, and the technology is different enough that it requires new legislation. It’s like banging a square peg into a round hole to try to make drones fit with existing case law. I think this is one of the reasons this is such a big conversation, and I think it will be very interesting to see whether we decide to let the courts sort this out for us, or whether Congress steps in and legislates this.

Tarpley: Our argument, our two-second pitch is we think a reasonable bill that supports reasonable limitations on use of UAVs will help quell some of the public fear over these UAVs and actually be beneficial to the geospatial profession.

Kominsky: It’s important for us to interact with the community to learn not just about the technology but how do you conduct enforcement for violators.

On privacy concerns and the public’s perceptions of drones.

Kominsky: I think a part of it is education and segregating what are the different types of uses of drones. That is something that needs to be done.

O’Hara: Certainly, from a legal perspective with regard to the government in particular, it has a lot to do with who has access to that information, why it’s being captured and what it’s being used for. It’s not just the idea of capturing the data, but then what is done with and what is the purpose, and is that something that (goes along) with public policy or not. Again, I agree with everyone on the panel that it’s very important that the public is more educated about the use for surveillance generally, whether it’s drones or something else.

Palatiello: There is an enormous economic impact, job-creation component to all of this. In today’s economy, we should not lose sight of that. Certainly, there are privacy protections that have to be considered, but we should not lose sight of the economic implications as well.