Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have provided a nice boon to the microwave and RF market. By using technologies ranging from Global Positioning System (GPS) location to wireless communications, they have offered new business opportunities. They also have inspired engineers who were striving to enable intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) gathering without putting troops in harm’s way. Beyond military uses, UAVs could serve a host of purposes ranging from providing news coverage of an event to performing search and rescue and scientific research.
As impressive as these possibilities are, a tremendous amount of controversy has arisen about the impending presence of drones in US skies and what their presence may imply. Concerns range from a loss of individual privacy to the vulnerability of such drones to terrorists. First and foremost, of course, the fervor around drones seems to focus on a potential loss of First Amendment rights. With the sophisticated imaging capabilities being integrated in many of today’s drones, they obviously offer exceptional surveillance possibilities. Yet people in the US have a certain expectation of privacy—and having close-up images taken of themselves at a park or outside their homes does not generally meet those expectations.
There is no doubt that the impact of drones on privacy will be debated in court. According to an article in the NY Law Journal titled, "Drone Surveillance and Privacy Expectations," "Drone technology, when integrated with other high-tech capabilities such as cell tracking, high-resolution picture and video, and infrared to name a few, may create new challenges for areas in which privacy and technology merge, thus implicating significant Fourth Amendment interests and calling into question well-established common law privacy rights."
The public’s second-biggest concern is probably the vulnerability of drones to terrorists. Beyond signal jamming, they are subject to "spoofing," which means that the navigation systems on the UAVs can be controlled with information that looks authentic, but is actually from a foreign source. This summer, Professor Todd Humphreys—together with his team at the University of Texas at Austin’s Radionavigation Laboratory—demonstrated how, with a relatively inexpensive ($1000) GPS "spoofer," he could take control of a GPS-guided drone in flight and make it do whatever he wished (see "Drones Subject to Terrorist Hijacking, Researchers Say," Fox News, June 25).
The problem is that most of those drones will use civilian GPS, which lacks the encryption employed by the military version. Maybe a cue should be taken from Israeli UAVs, which incorporate "sense and avoid" equipment as a safeguard. Regardless of the approach, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 mandates the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to develop a comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system no later than September 30, 2015. By the end of that year, we will know what the real risks are and, hopefully, how they are being overcome.