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Pilots worry about safety of allowing domestic drones in US skies

A Predator B unmanned aircraft lands after a mission at the Naval Air Station, Nov. 8, in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Airline pilots and privacy rights activists are fretting over a provision of the FAA funding bill passed by Congress that would open up the U.S. skies to drones for law enforcement and other domestic use.

The Senate late Monday passed a bill authorizing $63.4 billion for the Federal Aviation Administration over four years. The House passed the bill last week, and it now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The bill also requires the FAA to provide military, commercial and privately owned drones with expanded access to U.S. airspace currently reserved for manned aircraft by Sept. 30, 2015. That means unmanned drones controlled by remote operators on the ground could be flying in the same airspace as airliners, cargo planes, business jets and private aircraft.

Such a prospect worries Lee Moak, the head of the Air Line Pilots Association, an organization representing commercial pilots. He told reporters Monday there’s currently no system that allows operators of unmanned aircraft to spot and avoid helicopters and planes, Bloomberg reported.  

He said unmanned aircraft shouldn’t be allowed to fly with other traffic until it can be demonstrated that they won’t crash into other planes or the ground, according to Bloomberg.

“We have a long way to go,” Moak said.

Jay Stanley of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, says the FAA should be rightly concerned about “the safety effects of filling our skies with flying robots."

He also says nothing in the bill addresses “very serious privacy concerns” raised by domestic drones.

“This bill would push the nation willy-nilly toward an era of aerial surveillance without any steps  to protect the traditional privacy that Americans have always enjoyed and expected,” Stanley wrote on his ACLU blog.

“Congress — and to the extent possible, the FAA — need to impose some rules (such as those we proposed in our report) to protect Americans’ privacy from the inevitable invasions that this technology will otherwise lead to. We don’t want to wonder, every time we step out our front door, whether some eye in the sky is watching our every move.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy watchdog group, last month sued the U.S. Department of Transportation, the umbrella agency for the FAA, demanding that the FAA release details on authorized drone flights with the U.S.

Previous story: Watchdog group sues FAA for details on domestic drone flights 

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