NTIA Hosts First Meeting On UAS Privacy; Section 333 Exemption Grants Continue To Rise

By Tom DeCesar, Ed Fishman, Jim Insco and Marty Stern

On August 3th, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration held the first in a series of “multi-stakeholder meetings” among participants in the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS, a.k.a. drones) industry to help create possible industry guidelines on privacy, transparency, and accountability issues.  As we discussed here, the meetings are being held pursuant to President Obama’s February 15, 2015 Presidential Memorandum.  The purpose of the first meeting was to discuss high-priority issues to be addressed during the process, and logistics regarding the best way to address the issues – including through the establishment of working groups and concrete goals.  Future meetings have been scheduled for September 24th, October 21st, and November 20th.

Individuals from industry, academia, government, and privacy-related organizations were in attendance.  To begin, representatives from the FAA described the current state of UAS regulations and guidance, and answered questions from participants on a variety of UAS-related topics.  After an additional presentation on the future of UAS operations, individuals present at the meeting and participating by phone set forth what they saw as the top priorities for the process.  In addition, the participants generally discussed the parameters for the NTIA’s planned process, including which issues should be covered, the best system for addressing those issues, whose participation was needed, and what the final result of the process would look like.  Most participants focused on privacy issues, discussing accountability and transparency issues as secondary items.  Leaders from the NTIA asked participants to solidify their goals for the process and the best ways to address the issues raised by participants before the next meeting.  Based on the NTIA’s initial meeting announcement, the NTIA’s suggested plan is to create a working draft of the industry guidelines that will be available for public comment after the November meeting.

In addition to the NTIA’s process, the FAA continues to issue Section 333 exemptions so companies can operate UAS for commercial purposes in accordance with FAA policy.  Earlier this week, the FAA passed the 1,000 mark for Section 333 exemptions issued to date.  The FAA expedited the Section 333 exemption process significantly in April 2015 by beginning to issue summary grants.  Section 333 exemptions should continue to play a significant role for UAS operators until the FAA releases final rules on the use of small UAS.  In February 2015, the FAA proposed a rule which would generally allow the use of small UAS for commercial purposes.  Although many predicted the rulemaking process would last until at least 2017, some FAA officials have recently stated their expectation that the final rule will be issued by June 2016.  As we previously discussed, the proposed rule is focusing on line of sight operations of small UAS, over unpopulated areas, and only up to 500 feet.  The more difficult issues, but those that are associated with more innovative and higher value uses of UAS such as higher altitude and beyond visual line of sight operations, will likely take longer to address and be the subject of future rulemakings and exemptions.

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