Rep. Nadler on Commercial Drones: Many Possibilities, but Many Questions

Sep 10, 2015 Issues: Homeland Security

WASHINGTON, D.C. – During a hearing on unmanned aerial drones, Congressman Jerrold Nadler (NY-10), Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet, spoke about the potential benefits, drawbacks and challenges of expanded commercial drone usage.

“Drone technology has the potential to unleash a wave of innovation across numerous industries,” said Congressman Nadler. “But despite its many potential benefits, there are complex questions that must be answered before we fully embrace drone technology for commercial use.” 

The following is the text of Congressman Nadler’s statement as prepared for delivery at the hearing:

"Mr. Chairman, today we examine another emerging technology: unmanned aerial vehicles or, as they are commonly referred to, drones.  Like the Internet of Things, which was the subject of a recent hearing in our subcommittee, drone technology holds great promise, but also raises significant questions of privacy and security.  Today’s hearing is not about our military’s use of drones overseas, nor are we considering drone use by domestic law enforcement.  Those are important topics that raise many questions to be discussed at another time.  But, our focus today is on the commercial application of drones in the U.S., which raises its own set of important issues.

“Once upon a time, if you talked about a remote controlled aircraft, you would conjure up images of a child playing with his or her toy airplane in the backyard or in the park.  The plane was fairly small, had a limited range, and wouldn’t cause much damage, except to itself, if it fell to the ground or crashed onto your roof.  This was hardly something that would concern Congress.

“But, we are now entering a very different world where today’s remote controlled aircraft may be as heavy as 55 pounds, can travel many miles, and might be equipped with sophisticated cameras and sensors sending images and data to your computer in real time.  In some cases, the aircraft might not even be remote controlled, but may be following a pre-programmed flight plan.  And the operator isn’t a child in the backyard, it’s a major company delivering packages, monitoring farmland, or reporting on traffic jams.  How we address the privacy and safety implications of this new kind of unmanned aircraft is very much the province of Congress, and I hope this hearing will help us answer some of the important questions raised by the commercial use of drones.

“Drone technology has the potential to unleash a wave of innovation across numerous industries.  For example, real estate agents can provide aerial views of prospective properties; insurance adjusters can quickly survey flood damage over a wide area; companies like Amazon hope to deliver packages by air within 30 minutes; and photographers and film directors can take footage of their subjects from unique angles.  Meanwhile, entrepreneurs are launching companies that offer drone services for hire, or act as brokers between drone operators and businesses that need their services.  The possibilities for innovation are almost endless.

“But, so are the questions these services raise.  Most critically, how can we assure individuals that their privacy will be protected as these unmanned aircraft fly overhead?  Drones have the ability to collect massive amounts of data regarding the people and places below.  What sort of notice should be given to the individuals whose data is collected?  What rights should they have to control how this data is stored, shared, and used?  And what sorts of security protocols are in place to protect against this data being compromised by hackers?

“Drones also raise significant safety concerns.  We are all familiar with the drone that accidentally crashed into the White House lawn in January.  Just last week, a drone crashed into the U.S. Open tennis tournament.  And, last month a college student mounted a handgun to a drone and posted video on YouTube of it firing live ammunition.  Although each of these incidents involved privately operated drones, they highlight the danger posed by this technology.

“Not only must we protect against drones being used for malicious purposes, but we must also ensure that drones are operated safely, and do not interfere with other objects in the sky.  In addition, we should seek to minimize the noise or other nuisance that drones may present to individuals on the ground as they pass by.

“Recognizing the growing potential of drone technology, in 2012 Congress called on the Federal Aviation Administration to develop a plan to safely integrate civil use of unmanned aerial vehicles into the National Airspace System.  The FAA has yet to complete this rulemaking but its proposed rule naturally focuses on issues of safety in the skies, as that is the agency’s domain, rather than on privacy concerns.

“Therefore, in February, President Obama directed the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to convene a multi-stakeholder process to develop and communicate best practices regarding privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties.  But, these best practices would merely be voluntary in nature.  Given the vast array of issues raised by the commercial application of drones, it would seem that a mandatory regulatory structure is warranted.

“We should also consider where such regulatory power should lie.  For example, the FAA regulates the safety of objects in flight while the Federal Communications Commission regulates the airwaves through which drones are controlled.  The Federal Trade Commission plays a strong role in protecting consumer privacy, while the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security take the lead in protecting our security.  These agencies are in addition to the many laws that have been passed on the state level concerning drones.  I hope our witnesses today will help us sort through what the proper regulatory scheme should be for drones in commercial use, and who should administer these laws and regulations.

"Despite the many potential benefits of drone technology, there are thorny questions that must be answered before we fully embrace it for commercial use.  I appreciate the Chairman holding this hearing so that we can begin a thoughtful consideration of these important issues.”