Drones have been making news lately and the amount of recent regulatory attention to the issue reflects the rapidly changing landscape in which drones are operating. We summarize some recent initiatives in this area below.

  • The White House is currently working on an Executive Order (“Order”) that would regulate federal agency drone use. Specifically, it is reported that the Order would instruct the Department of Commerce to help develop voluntary privacy guidelines for private-sector drone flights, with the intent that these guidelines would help shape nonbinding industry standards on commercial surveillance. The Order would also increase transparency into drone use by the federal government, by directing federal agencies such as the Pentagon, Justice Department, and Department of Homeland Security to provide public information about the size and surveillance capabilities of their drone fleets operating in U.S. airspace. At present, the draft Order is in the interagency review process; no formal timetable has been set for its release.
  • On September 30th, the Government Accountability Office published a report summarizing the Department of Homeland Security’s (“DHS”) review of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (“CBP”) drone program for border surveillance.2 The DHS review found that CBP had taken steps to help ensure that its drone program complied with privacy and civil liberty laws and standards.  The review revealed that drones were sometimes flown away from the border “in support of other federal, state or local law enforcement activities and for emergency and humanitarian efforts,” but that CPB uses an “oversight framework and procedures” to ensure compliance with all privacy laws. The Report also discussed a DHS “Working Group” tasked with establishing a forum for privacy issues; ensuring that DHS Privacy Office guidance was reflected in drone policies; identifying potential privacy and civil liberties concerns with drone use; and promoting best practices for safeguarding privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties by DHS partners. As part of these best efforts, the Privacy Office issued a privacy impact assessment in September 2013 finding that drone use as it was being conducted by DHS, was consistent with the Fair Information Practice Principles.
  • On September 25th, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) cleared six filmmaking companies to use drones for filming, marking the first exemptions on the FAA’s virtual ban on commercial drone use. Although the FAA continues to work on rules for commercial drone use—a process expected to stretch into next year at a minimum— the FAA previously signaled its willingness to approve operating requests for commercial drones, especially  those operating in controlled environments away from populated areas, for uses such as filmmaking, crop monitoring, and power plant inspections. The FAA is currently considering approximately 40 other requests for exemptions spanning a number of different commercial sectors, and has imposed a 120-day period on itself for review.