Domestic Use of Drones is Well Underway

01.25.12 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) within the United States is certain to increase in the years to come, as a new Army policy has recently made clear.  (“Army Foresees Expanded Use of Drones in U.S. Airspace,” Secrecy News, January 19.)  But in fact the use of unmanned aircraft or drones within U.S. airspace has already advanced to a degree that is not widely recognized.

As of 2010, the Federal Aviation Administration had already issued hundreds of “certificates of authorization” (COAs) for the domestic use of drones.

“Right now, today as we sit here, we have 251 certificates of authorization for unmanned aircraft, 140 of them are DOD related,” said Hank Krakowski of the FAA at an informative Senate hearing in September 2010.  “We have not rejected or denied any DOD COAs in 2010, and we keep moving forward.”

On the other hand, Mr. Krakowski cautioned, “While UASs offer a promising new technology, the limited safety and operational data available to date does not yet support expedited or full integration into the NAS [National Airspace System]. Because current available data is insufficient to allow unfettered integration of UASs into the NAS–where the public travels every day– the FAA must continue to move forward deliberately and cautiously, in accordance with our safety mandate.”

“Unmanned aircraft systems [were] originally and primarily designed for military purposes,” he noted. “Although the technology incorporated into UASs has advanced, their safety record warrants caution. As we attempt to integrate these aircraft into the NAS, we will continue to look at any risks that UASs pose to the traveling public as well as the risk to persons or property on the ground.”

See “The Integration of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs) Into the National Airspace System (NAS): Fulfilling Imminent Operational and Training Requirements,” Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology, September 13, 2010 (published September 2011).

In the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress included language requiring a report on “the integration of unmanned aerial systems into the national airspace system” (h/t Emptywheel).

The legality of the use of drones in CIA targeted killing programs is among the topics that is explored in the brand new issue of the Journal of National Security Law and Policy on the subject of covert war.