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WASHINGTON (AP) — A bill to speed the nation's switch from radar to an air traffic control system based on GPS technology, and to open U.S. skies to unmanned drone flights within four years, received final congressional approval Monday
The bill authorizes $63.4 billion for the Federal Aviation Administration over four years, including about $11 billion toward the air traffic system and its modernization. It accelerates the modernization program by setting a deadline of June 2015 for the FAA to develop new arrival procedures at the nation's 35 busiest airports so planes can land using the more-precise GPS navigation.
The FAA is also required under the bill to provide military, commercial and privately-owned drones with expanded access to U.S. airspace currently reserved for manned aircraft by Sept. 30, 2015. That means permitting unmanned drones controlled by remote operators on the ground to fly in the same airspace as airliners, cargo planes, business jets and private aircraft.
Currently, the FAA restricts drone use primarily to segregated blocks of military airspace, border patrols and about 300 public agencies and their private partners. Those public agencies are mainly restricted to flying small unmanned aircraft at low altitudes away from airports and urban centers.
Within nine months of the bill's passage, the FAA is required to submit a plan on how to safely provide drones with expanded access.
First, there’s the issue of privacy. Rigging a cheap drone with a video camera was no problem for an Occupy protestor; how hard would it be for someone with deeper pockets to finance a drone with even more powerful surveillance equipment to monitor, well, who knows what? How will we know what purposes any private citizen has for deploying a drone overhead?
Then there are the corporations. Forbes points out that companies like Google could ditch their Street View cars and start deploying advanced, autonomous drones to roam the country for incredibly thorough mapping. If the idea of fleets of corporate-owned drones monitoring us from above doesn’t scare you, then you are a much less paranoid person than I.
Safety is the other unmanned albatross in the room. According to the Associated Press, “Within nine months of the bill’s passage, the FAA is required to submit a plan on how to safely provide drones with expanded access.”