Another federal agency is now considering regulation of drones – but it’s NOT the FCC.

We have previously reported on the FAA’s regulation – or non-regulation, or proposed regulation – of drones (official bureaucratic name: unmanned aircraft systems or UAS). Most recently, the FAA finally managed to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking looking at operational rules for drones. Think maximum size and operating height, need for an operator license, requirement that line of sight be maintained – that sort of thing. (Since Congress told the FAA back in 2012 to get rules along these lines in place by 2015, the FAA seems to be a little slow out of the gate here, but that’s a story for another post.)

Now a second federal agency is joining the move to regulate drones. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which of late has been focusing mainly on policies related to broadband, spectrum use and the Internet, has begun a multistakeholder process to address “best practices” for the commercial and private use of drones. (Law enforcement and other noncommercial governmental drone use is not on the table here.) The goal is to look at broader drone-related issues, such as privacy concerns, transparency and accountability.

The NTIA is following up on a Presidential Memorandum issued last February by President Obama. In that Memorandum the President pledged that the federal government “will take steps to ensure that the integration [of civil UAS into the national airspace system] takes into account not only our economic competitiveness and public safety, but also the privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties concerns these systems may raise.” 

An ambitious, if not narrowly-targeted, agenda. But the NTIA is nothing if not game, so to get the ball rolling it’s started off by posing a wide range of fairly open-ended questions covering three broad categories: privacy, transparency and accountability.

Privacy interests are obviously implicated in drone operation because drones can go places that most of us can’t get to, and they can do it with a camera and GPS gear. The likelihood that drones could capture information – not just backyard nude sunbathing, but other activities that might normally be considered to be “private” – is clearly non-trivial. Other privacy concerns arise from proposals to use drones as a means of providing Internet service cheaply, particularly to remote areas. (Some drones can remain aloft over a relatively confined area for months.) With all that in mind, NTIA asks “what specific best practices would mitigate the most pressing privacy challenges while supporting innovation?”

On the transparency side, NTIA thinks that it might be a good idea to be able to identify who’s operating which drones, and when, and what for, and what “data processes” are being used in connection with drone operation. That would make it easier to keep track of wayward, unsafely-operated or “nuisance”-causing drones. (NTIA does not, however, venture a definition of what a “nuisance” in this context might be, but we can all probably guess.) With all that in mind, NTIA is looking for suggestions for how to “promote transparent UAS operation”. Standardized physical markings or electronic identifiers are two possibilities it mentions. It’s also interested in how drone operators can most effectively alert the public to their operations.

As to accountability, NTIA is looking at possible “accountability mechanisms” to keep drone operators honest. These could include things like: rules governing “oversight and privacy training for UAS pilots”; “policies for how companies and individuals operate UAS and handle data collected by UAS”; audits, assessments, and “internal or external reports” to verify UAS operators’ compliance with their privacy and transparency commitments. Those last items could, in NTIA’s view, possibly be handled by “companies, model aircraft clubs, UAS training programs, or others”.

This is just a preliminary proceeding, characterized by the NTIA as a “request for public comment”. But it does provide all interested folks the opportunity to get in on the ground floor relative to any NTIA-based rules or policies that might eventually be developed. NTIA is looking for suggestions about possible “best practices” for ensuring safe, non-invasive drone use. If you’ve got any thoughts on that, you’ve got until 5:00 p.m. (ET) on April 20, 2015 to let the NTIA know about them.

And one final note. We now have the FAA working on nitty-gritty operational rules, and the NTIA working on fuzzier (but nonetheless important) concepts of privacy, transparency and accountability. The one agency we haven’t heard from yet is the FCC.

The expanding use of drones raises questions about the spectrum needs for both video transmissions and communications.  As our friend Michael Marcus has commented a couple of times already – here and here, for example – drones’ reliance on spectrum could eventually spell trouble for Wi-Fi and cellular users. (You can read more of Dr. Marcus’s thoughts on this topic on his blog, which we recommend.) The prospect of more drones in the foreseeable future should prompt the FCC to try to get ahead of the curve.