Drone testing officials poised to tackle privacy concerns

Now that Nevada is on track to test unmanned aerial vehicles this summer, state administrators of drone testing must tackle the prickliest issue accompanying the potential bonanza of hosting test sites — privacy concerns.

The Nevada Institute of Autonomous Systems board of directors, which sets policy for the state’s program management office, took its first swing at developing a test site privacy policy, distributing a document that eventually would be the subject of public hearings and annual reviews.

One of the reasons Nevada scored so high in its bid to become one of six states hosting unmanned system test ranges is that it has airspace far from any population centers.

Despite that advantage, state officials know that the public confidence in the administration of the program will depend on how well it assures citizens that they are not the subject of surveillance and that the public’s Fourth Amendment rights against illegal searches is preserved.


Another important element of the privacy policy is to ensure that when a drone collects data on a flight that it only transmits what the Federal Aviation Administration is required to get in the development of its plan to integrate unmanned aircraft into the public airspace. That’s not only an assurance to the public but a guarantee to companies conducting flight tests that their research and development isn’t being transmitted to competitors.

“We’re building a paradigm to do testing that is consistent with FAA policies and provides the FAA with the data it needs,” said John Valery White, executive vice president and provost at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and chairman of the Nevada Institute of Autonomous Systems board.

“These devices will be collecting data of whatever is below it so we need to know where the data is, who controls it and who has the authority over it. And if your house is the only one within 100 square miles, you still need to be protected.”


The Federal Aviation Administration began considering how to manage privacy concerns well before Nevada became one of the six states chosen to conduct test flights in December.

In February 2013, the federal agency that oversees the nation’s airspace published a request for comments on test site privacy requirements.

The agency received 152 comments through public hearings and via email. Comments ranged from recommending that the agency not impose any requirements to imposing extensive oversight on privacy at test sites.

Administrators grouped comments into 10 categories and from them developed broad policies designed to guide the six states to establish regulations tailored to their locations.


The agency isn’t veering from its primary mission of providing a safe and efficient airspace. Generally, it advocates the adoption of rules similar to those guiding manned aircraft.

The FAA rejected imposing additional audits of test sites to ensure compliance with privacy policies or requiring the establishment of a searchable database or registry for unmanned vehicle flights, but it does require each test site to maintain a record of flights.

The agency also rejected having test sites require specific flights or tests demonstrating a company’s compliance with privacy regulations.

Finally, the FAA allowed contractual provisions that would enable it to suspend operations at test sites that violate privacy rules or fine operators that fail to comply with privacy policies.

Using those guidelines, Nevada drafted its six-page policy, a document that is likely to change as the unmanned aerial systems industry matures and the public becomes more aware of the capabilities of the vehicles.


The entire policy is accessible on the Nevada Institute of Autonomous Systems website by clicking on the Federal Aviation Administration shield on the home page. The FAA page has an email address for public comments. As the public becomes more familiar with the policies and the program, the board will offer meetings and hearings to consider modifications to the policy.

Local law firms are developing a caucus to consider privacy issues as they develop.

In an article in Communique, published by the Clark County Bar Association, Joice Bass, a litigation partner with Lewis Roca Rothgerber in Las Vegas and a specialist in unmanned aerial system privacy issues, said the new airborne technology is heading into uncharted waters as the industry blossoms.


“With all of the technology that can conceivably be encapsulated in a single UAV — GPS, infrared and thermal imaging, high resolution and ‘night-time’ video imaging, audio and digital communications interception — especially when paired with a relatively affordable price tag, it is easy to understand the industry’s and users’, including law enforcement’s, enthusiasm for rapid integration of unmanned systems into civilian life,” Bass wrote in the magazine’s March edition.

“What is less clear, however, is how this advanced technology, once fully deployed, will impact individuals’ rights to privacy and to freedom from unreasonable government surveillance,” she wrote.

“The only thing that is certain is that, as with most information-based technology these days, there will definitely be some impact.”

Contact reporter Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow him on Twitter @RickVelotta.