Revealed: no one really knows how many entities are allowed by the FAA to fly drones domestically
By End the Lie
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has revealed that no one really knows how many licenses the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued to domestic drone operators – thus leaving us with no idea how many entities are allowed to fly drones over the United States.
Earlier this month, I reported on the most recent FAA drone list that revealed over 80 public entities cleared to fly drones domestically but the list did not include entities like the Oregon National Guard and others who also fly drones in the U.S.
The oversight of the massive domestic drone program is far from satisfactory, especially when it comes to the military’s use of drones in concert with law enforcement, something which will likely only expand in the future.
A recent article by the Los Angeles Times revealed that since 2007 1,428 permits were issued by the FAA and 327 were still listed as active.
This led the EFF to ask, “Just how many agencies have applied for drone licenses? How many licenses has the FAA issued since it started issuing licenses (which was earlier than 2007)? And how much has domestic drone use increased over the years?”
The EFF concludes that the FAA has made it impossible to answer these burning questions despite their two Freedom of Information Act lawsuits against the FAA.
While they have uncovered a wealth of information on domestic drone use, the use is still far from entirely transparent or even as close to transparent as one might expect.
“But thanks to discrepancies among various drone numbers the FAA has released—to EFF, to the Government Accountability Office and to members of Congress—it’s anyone’s guess exactly how much drone authorizations have increased over the years,” the EFF states.
The EFF gives the following table showing just how little sense the FAA’s numbers actually make:
|July 2010:||The FAA stated in a Fact Sheet that it issued 71 “experimental certificates” since July 2005 (Source: July 15, 2010 FAA Fact Sheet (since taken down from the FAA website))|
|April 2012:||The FAA told EFF that 61 public “proponents” had applied for drone licenses since the agency’s drone licensing program began. The FAA has also said these 61 proponents applied for approximately 750 Certificates of Authorization (COAs). (Source: FAA list provided to EFF and EFF’s FOIA litigation)|
|July 2012:||The Government Accountability Office reported that “[b]etween January 1, 2012 and July 17, 2012, FAA had issued 201 COAs to 106 federal, state, and local government entities across the United States, including law enforcement entities as well as academic institutions.” (Source: July 2012 GAO Testimony on Unmanned Aircraft Systems (pdf, p.2))|
|September 2012:||The Government Accountability Office reported that “[b]etween January 1, 2012, and July 13, 2012, FAA issued 342 COAs to 106 federal, state, and local government entities across the United States, including law enforcement entities as well as academic institutions.” (Source: September 2012 GAO Report on Unmanned Aircraft Systems (pdf, p.7))|
|September 2012:||The FAA told Representatives Markey and Barton that, as of September 2012, 228 public drone license “sponsors” had a current, expired, or disapproved COA. (Source: FAA list provided to Representatives Markey and Barton. (pdf, p.6))|
|January 2013:||The FAA told EFF that 81 public drone license “proponents” had applied for COAs between July 2011 and October 2012. (Source: Second FAA list provided to EFF)|
|February 2013:||The LA Times and the Government Accountability Office reported that the FAA has issued 1,428 permits to domestic drone operators since January 2007. The Times notes that “some 327 permits are still listed as active.” (Source: Los Angeles Times; February 2013 GAO Report (pdf, p.3))|
“There are other discrepancies. Of the 228 entities on the list released to Representatives Markey and Barton in September 2012, at least 28 are not on either of the lists the FAA provided to EFF, despite the fact that the FAA has assured EFF—as part of our litigation—that EFF’s lists include all public entities that have applied for drone licenses,” the EFF continues.
The missing entities include:
- Bastrop County Texas Emergency Management Coordinator
- Becker Soil & Water Conservation District (city of Minnesota)
- Center for Interdisciplinary Remotely Piloted Aircraft Studies
- City of El Dorado, KS
- Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office
- Colorado Department of Transportation
- Department of Military and Veterans Commonwealth (PA)
- Florida Atlantic University
- Jacksonville District Corps of Engineers
- New Mexico Tech at Playas Training & Research Center
- SPAWAR Systems Center
- Stark County Sheriff Department
- Texas Rangers
And a number of State National Guard offices:
- California Air National Guard
- Guam Army National Guard
- Illinois Army National Guard
- Iowa Army National Guard
- Louisiana Army National Guard
- Michigan Army National Guard
- Minnesota Army National Guard
- New Mexico Army National Guard
- Ohio Army National Guard
- Oklahoma National Guard
- Oregon National Guard
- Tennessee Army National Guard
- Texas National Guard
- Virginia Army National Guard
Yet still this list is far short of the actual list of domestic drone authorization since, “by the FAA’s own admission, the list provided to Markey and Barton does not include classified drone applications.”
In other words, we really have no clue how many drones are operated over the United States and what entities are cleared to fly them.
The EFF notes that they shouldn’t have to keep suing the FAA to get “accurate, complete, up-to-date and reliable data on how many entities are licensed to fly drones, who those entities are, and how many licenses the FAA has issued for each year it’s issued licenses,” but apparently that is precisely what they have to do.
Even with those lawsuits, we’re clearly not getting the full picture and thus no semblance of what the EFF calls “an open and full debate about domestic drone flights” can even begin to be held.
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