Would a drone by any other name sound as threatening?
A long-standing program to use unmanned aircraft to collect data on storm systems landed the University of Colorado on a list of agencies and entities that have asked the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to fly drones in domestic airspace.
The list of 81 law enforcement agencies, government entities and universities was posted online by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group focused on emerging technologies. The list of agencies that applied for permits for unmanned aircraft in 2012 ranges from the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Department of Homeland Security to local police departments in several states and more than two dozen universities, including CU's Boulder campus.
"Any flight of an unmanned aircraft or drone -- which, by the way, we hate that term and don't use it -- has to have one of these permits," said Eric Frew, director of the Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles at CU.
CU's 2012 request was a renewal of a pre-existing permit to use the Tempest Unmanned Aircraft to collect storm data for atmospheric scientists in Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado, Frew said.
The project, in cooperation with the National Science Foundation and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, involved flying unmanned craft carrying observation gear around supercell thunderstorms and the tornadoes they spawned.
So far, that's the only purpose for which the university has sent unmanned aircraft into the sky.
However, the FAA permit process doesn't ask what the unmanned flights are for, Frew said. Instead, the agency asks detailed questions about the safety of the aircraft and the operators' plans for dealing with unexpected events, such avoiding other aircraft.
The research and engineering center does receive some funding from the Department of Defense because it works on the underlying science of unmanned vehicles.
"We do fundamental research, and the Defense Department is interested in that as much as the National Science Foundation," Frew said.
Frew said the political controversy around drones hasn't had any impact on the research center, other than fielding media calls, but the lengthy permitting process required by the FAA can make some funding organizations hesitate. They don't want to give a grant for research that requires a permit that might be denied.
When it comes to public concern about unmanned aircraft in American skies, Frew said the small planes are just tools.
"From my perspective, the same rules apply to unmanned aircraft as to manned aircraft," he said. "You can't drop something out of a manned aircraft and you can't drop something out of an unmanned aircraft. You can't take pictures in someone's bedroom window from a manned aircraft, and you can't take pictures in someone's bedroom window from an unmanned aircraft."
Other agencies with Colorado ties on the FAA drone list include the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, both of which have labs in Boulder, and the Mesa County Sheriff's Office, which has two unmanned aircraft that it uses for investigations, search-and-rescue efforts.
ACLU: Legislation needed
Judd Golden of the Boulder County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said drones have many legitimate uses, including in military and law enforcement contexts, but legislation is needed to require judicial review when police want to use unmanned aircraft to collect information for investigations.
He said it's natural that people would have concerns about the expanding use of the aircraft within the United States.
"If you see a device hovering over your house, why is it there?" he said. "There are all sorts of good applications, but we need legislation to make sure the uses are legitimate. Routine aerial surveillance absent judicial process is a very bad development and has all the mission creep concerns that would bring us to surveillance state society."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed suit against the U.S. Department of Transportation to obtain the information.
"Prior to our suit, there was no information available to the public about who specifically had obtained these authorizations or for what purposes," Electronic Frontier Foundation officials wrote on their website. "Through our lawsuit, we received specific and detailed information on the drone licensing process that was never before released."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Erica Meltzer at 303-473-1355 or email@example.com.
To see the FAA's complete list of 2012 drone license applicants, visit eff.org. And to learn more about CU's unmanned vehicle research program, visit recuv.colorado.edu. ___