Fresh Air Interview: John Villasenor - Drones Over America: What Can They See? In February, President Obama signed an aviation bill requiring the FAA to make plans to integrate drones into American airspace. Brookings Institution senior fellow John Villasenor explains what these drones will be able to see — and how our privacy and national security may be affected.
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Drones Over America: What Can They See?

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Drones Over America: What Can They See?

Drones Over America: What Can They See?

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Drones are coming to the United States. Last month, Congress passed and President Obama signed a bill that requires the Federal Aviation Administration to integrate drones into our national airspace.

Though we're familiar with the Predator drones that are used to track and kill terrorists, drones can also be small and nonlethal. Public agencies such as police, fire departments and border control can use them for surveillance, and there will also be drones operated by private companies for commercial use.

Drones can monitor cell phone and Wi-Fi signals, which raises many new privacy concerns. Our guest, John Villasenor, has written about some of the privacy and safety issues we will face in this new era of domestic drones. Villasenor is a senior fellow in government studies at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, and a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor, Dave Davies.


Well, John Villasenor, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, we think of drones as being military aircraft in use in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but they really have all kinds of uses, don't they? What are some of the uses that you might see in the United States?

JOHN VILLASENOR: Well, there's a long list of uses. For example, they're obviously very useful for providing overhead surveillance, for policy departments, for example, if there's some sort of a criminal, like a hostage situation going on, I can imagine it could be very useful for that. Customs and border protection uses them to keep watch over the border.

They can used to spot wildfires, to inspect oil pipelines, construction sites, really an almost endless list of non-military uses.

DAVIES: Right, and those all sound like kind of responsible things that people would, you know, undertake to maintain security and the like. What about just simple commercial uses that might arise?

VILLASENOR: Certainly that, as well. For example, one application that you see sometimes is real estate firms, for example, wanted to get overhead images of a property just for advertising the property as part of a home sale. And again, for things like oil pipelines and things like that, operators of oil pipelines, commercial operators might use them for those purposes, as well.

You can imagine being used for surveying, for keeping an eye on traffic, really any number of applications.

DAVIES: Movie-making?

VILLASENOR: Movie-making absolutely, absolutely. That's - that has actually been happening to some extent in Southern California.

DAVIES: And then paparazzi. I mean, if I want to fly over Brad Pitt's place and check out his party?

VILLASENOR: Well, that is going to be the - one of, certainly, some of the tests of what the limits are going to be provided by exactly that application, because it's a sure bet that paparazzi will want to use drones if they can, and obviously that's going to raise some very significant questions.

DAVIES: Give us an idea of some of their capabilities, I mean, pictures, video? I mean, can they focus in on sounds in a particular room?

VILLASENOR: So I think, by far the most significant and - the capability that's most likely to be used is of course imaging, and imaging meant to include both still pictures, as well as video. I think, probably second on the list, we would have wireless monitoring of radio signals, so signals from Wi-Fi access points.

You could monitor cell phone conversations. You could intercept cell phone conversations and redirect them somehow. You could potentially monitor computers. You could obviously perform surveillance by taking pictures into backyards and windows and so on.

DAVIES: And video too, right?

VILLASENOR: Video, too. Yes, the - absolutely. There's no - anything you can do with a smartphone, you can put your smartphone on a drone and do it from a drone. So - and also infrared imaging. Drones could be used to monitor when - what rooms were certain temperatures in a house. They could see when lights are being turned on and off. They could follow cars. They could do all sorts of things that would be much more difficult to do without drones.

DAVIES: OK, before we get into what the new FAA rules might be and all of the legal issues that this presents, let's talk a little bit more about what kind of drones there are. I mean, people are used to thinking of these as big - you know, relatively big, unmanned aircraft, which can be used to, you know, take out terrorist targets in Afghanistan.

But there's quite a diversity, right? Give us a sense of, sort of, the range in size, height at which they fly, that kind of thing.

VILLASENOR: Yeah, the term drone has been used to cover what is really an extraordinary array of different, not only sizes, but shapes and forms and speeds and the like. So to give some examples, there are drones that are essentially the size of business jets and in fact are jet-powered and that are used by the U.S. military.

There are drones that are solar-powered, that are very large but extremely light and can fly for months and years at a time at extremely high altitudes. There are drones that can fit literally in the trunk of a car or in a backpack or even the palm of a hand. Some of these drones can weigh 10 pounds, five pounds, less than one pound, a few ounces - and they can obviously fly in much smaller spaces and are much more agile.

There are drones that are basically like balloons, that sit up there in the sky in one place and can observe, for long periods of time, enormous swaths of territory. So there's really an enormous range of these things.

DAVIES: So something that you could pull out of your trunk or a backpack, you launch it up, and it gives you, what, a clear, color picture, night vision, that kind of thing?

VILLASENOR: All of the above. That's exactly right. I mean, it depends on the type of camera that's mounted on the platform. And they're not always airplanes in the sense of having, you know, propellers or jet engines. Helicopter drones are, you know, with that sort of - have rotors are common, as well, and in fact they were used by the Libyan rebels last summer in the events that occurred over there. So those are also - that's another class of drones.

DAVIES: Now, you said there are also drones which fly way up high, like in the stratosphere, and are incredibly light, and did you say, can stay up for weeks, months?

VILLASENOR: That's a really interesting piece of the whole drone story. Yes, so there's, for example a company - an English company called Kinetic(ph) that built, has a drone that has, in the test in Arizona in I believe it was 2010, stayed up over Arizona continuously for about two weeks, and that drone, despite having a wingspan of over 100 feet, it weight roughly, if I remember correctly, on the order or somewhere between – from 60 to 70 pounds. It was very light, given its size.

Boeing, the aerospace and defense giant, has been awarded a contract to develop something called the Solar Eagle, which is designed to be able to fly for five continuous years at a time, at stratospheric altitudes. And so we're talking 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 feet.

And these airplanes, these drones aren't flying at 400 miles per hour. These are going, you know, very slowly, and they have wings which are paper thin, which have solar panels which are mounted on the top, and they also have batteries that store energy collected during the day so they can continue to turn the propellers and fly at night until the sun comes up.

DAVIES: And what would they do at that height? You said 60,000 feet?

VILLASENOR: Yes, so for example at 60,000 feet, you can survey an absolutely enormous amount of territory, and so drones at that height would be able to - would presumably have not one camera but probably a whole array of cameras mounted on the underside and would be able to then perform surveillance of some enormous, you know, hundreds of square miles or even more from that vantage point.

And then, of course, they would send all that information down through a wireless link to some station on the ground.

DAVIES: Now, we already have these satellites, which have enormous, you know, resolution cameras in them. What could the drones do that the satellites wouldn't?

VILLASENOR: That's a really interesting question. Satellites have high-resolution cameras, but they're much farther away. Even the lowest of the low-orbit satellites or the satellites that dip down to low points in their orbit, they're never lower than roughly 100 miles above the Earth's surface. Now, that's low for a satellite, but now we compare that with a drone that's at 60,000 feet, you're talking, you know, something's that closer to 11 or 12 miles.

So because these drones are, basically, about one-tenth as far away as the satellites, then an equivalent camera is, of course, going to give you much higher resolution. So being closer will make these drones in a position to image in much more detail.

DAVIES: And of course a satellite orbits the Earth, but a drone could conceivably hover over its target, right?

VILLASENOR: That's exactly right. The only time a satellite can hover over one spot on Earth is if it's what is called a geostationary orbit, which is over 20,000 miles away, and that's great for communication satellites but not very good for surveillance. And as you said, that's exactly right, that the low - the satellites that are in low orbits, they move around (technical difficulties) one spot, whereas one of these stratospheric drones could turn slow circles in the sky and, in effect, be stationary with respect to one area on the ground.

DAVIES: We're speaking with John Villasenor. He is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're talking about drones and their potential uses and misuses in the United States with John Villasenor. He is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He's also a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA.

All right, so let's talk about what's happened now with the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration. In a funding bill in February, right, there was no language which required the FAA to address the issue of unmanned aerial vehicles, right?

VILLASENOR: Yes, that's right. There's a not very long but very important section in that bill.

DAVIES: And what does it provide?

VILLASENOR: It provides a complex set of overlapping stages to bring drones into the domestic airspace system. But the upshot is that there's some deadlines, and we're going to have an increasing amount of drones, which, you know, will - sort of the endgame is - the goal was to have, by I believe it's September 30th, 2015 - to have what the FAA terms the, quote, "safe integration of civil unmanned system - unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system."

But there's a whole set of steps that occurs on the way to September 30th, 2015, to enable that to happen.

DAVIES: But is the intent to essentially permit commercial use of drones in the United States provided it can be done safely?

VILLASENOR: That is part of the intent. The bill covers - the bill really addresses two classes of what are in formal terms called unmanned aircraft systems, or UASs, which we refer to as drones. There are civil unmanned aircraft systems, and then there are public unmanned aircraft systems, and public is basically the word for police departments, fire departments, state, government agencies, the national government.

And then civil unmanned aircraft systems would be drones operated, for example, by private companies. And the bill provides in separate language and in separate terms, the bill provides for both of those types of drones.

DAVIES: OK. Let's talk about some of the issues that is raised by, you know, the presence of possibly hundreds or thousands of drones flying around the United States. I mean, one question, obviously is privacy. If they have the ability to take pictures just about anywhere in the air, I mean, it can be intrusive. I mean, it can be paparazzi, it can be people, you know, shadowing or stalking a girlfriend or a boyfriend. What's the current law on the extent to which you're allowed to take pictures from the air?

VILLASENOR: There's a really interesting and highly relevant Supreme Court case from 1986, and what happened then was there was a police department which used a private airplane - one of these small, single-engine airplanes - to fly over a suspect's house and observed that in the backyard, the suspect was growing marijuana.

And the suspect then challenged - the suspect was arrested, and the suspect challenged that on the grounds that it was an unreasonable search in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and that went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which in May of 1986 issued a ruling, which said that was not an unreasonable search and because the police observations took place within what they called public, navigable airspace in a physically non-intrusive manner that that was permitted and within the scope of the Fourth Amendment.

Now, if you take that ruling, and you apply it to a world in which there are hundreds or thousands of drones, then that obviously gives rise to some very significant concerns.

DAVIES: Yeah, that seems to fit exactly what a drone can be, public navigable airspace and a physically nonintrusive manner. I mean, does that mean the paparazzi have a free shot?

VILLASENOR: Well, this will certainly get tested. If you interpret that ruling all by itself, that would certainly suggest that, at least as things stand today, people will have a fair amount of latitude to make observations using drones. But there are other very interesting and relevant cases, as well, which relate not to drones but to the observation from outside of what is happening inside.

One case that's really also very interesting and perhaps relevant is a 2001 ruling in a case called Kyllo versus the United States, again by the Supreme Court. In that case, what had happened was the police had used an infrared detector - not from an airplane but just from the ground - and had used that to observe that the walls of a house were warmer than they should be.

And then inferred from that that there were marijuana plants growing inside, and that was challenged. And the Supreme Court in that case in fact ruled against the government, and the - in that case, the government was found to have violated the Fourth Amendment.

And there's a very interesting piece of language in that ruling, which when you map it to drones, is really interesting. I'll read a single sentence from the ruling in that Supreme Court case. Where, as here, the government uses a device that is not in general public use to explore details of the home that would previously have been unknowable without physical intrusion, the surveillance is a search.

So - and they then went on to say that that's an unreasonable search without a warrant. And so, one of the interesting pieces of - one of the interesting phrases in that language is: not in general public use.

And so then if we fast-forward for two or three or four years from now, when drones are in public use, does that change the legal foundation for what you can and can't observe from the outside of a home that would have been previously unknowable without physical intrusion?

DAVIES: So we have this new interesting language in federal law, which requires the FAA, the Federal Administration, to permit the safe integration of drones into American airspace by the fall of 2015. And as you've explained, there are many intermediate steps, but what kind of world could we be living in in five years? I mean, will you go outside and see drones?

VILLASENOR: I don't think that in five years when you step outside the grocery store and look up into the sky you will see dozens of drones swarming above you, but I do think that if you look carefully from certain vantage points, you will see drones more and more.

So for example, one of the things that I'm sure many people have seen is when there's a traffic problem, a tie-up on an interstate highway or a freeway, very often you know there's a tie-up because you can see three or four traffic helicopters, you know, hovering over what must be some sort of an incident. So five years from now, you could probably imagine that in addition to helicopters with people in them, you might have drones flying around a few hundred feet above the ground taking pictures of those things.

In five years, we also may have some of these stratospheric drones, which would be very hard to see if you're not looking for them, but if you look carefully, you'd probably see them, as well. And then for people who live in areas where there are increased drone operations, for example, as I mentioned earlier, the customs and border protection folks have been using drones to help patrol the border, those drones would be visible from quite a long distance away inside the United States, and one can assume that those drones will probably be used more frequently in the future and will be seen more, as well.

DAVIES: I remember reading the figure 30,000 drones in the air. Is that possible, over the United States?

VILLASENOR: Sure, it's possible, it's possible. Again, part of the answer to that depends on what we really mean by drones. Will we have 30,000 Predator-style, large drones doing surveillance? I doubt that very much. But if you include these smaller backpack-sized or trunk-sized surveillance drones, that in fact could happen.

DAVIES: What about the danger of mid-air collisions? I mean, you know, the FAA has to careful monitor where jets are flying to maintain safe airspace. If we add a lot of drones, how much of a challenge is that?

VILLASENOR: I think it's a challenge, you know, especially when you just think about the large numbers. If we do have, you know, thousands and thousands of these things, you know, the concern is that, you know, there's always somebody who doesn't - who kind of breaks the rules, either by accident or on purpose. So I think just the sheer numbers of it does raise a concern.

DAVIES: And what about the danger of crashes? I mean, I can imagine getting a little nervous if I looked up and saw two or three drones over the freeway.

VILLASENOR: It's actually already happened. In - I think it was the late 2010, there was a drone operated by the Mexican national police force that actually crashed into an El Paso, Texas, backyard. So we've already had an instance of - and this was a small drone. This was - it didn't hurt anybody. It didn't do, as far as I'm aware, any property damage. And so, if you have thousands of drones flying, then yes, they will crash. And let's hope that when they do, they don't do any damage to - don't hurt anybody and don't do any damage.

But again, the law of large numbers sort of suggests that sooner or later, there will be some crashes of more significance, and that is also a concern.

GROSS: John Villasenor will continue his conversation with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Villasenor is a senior fellow at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Last month, President Obama signed a new funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA. It included a new provision requiring the FAA to integrate drones into our national airspace. Public agencies will be able to start using drones in May. Private commercial drones will hit the skies in 2015.

Our guest, John Villasenor, is a senior fellow in governance studies at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, and he's a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA. He's been writing about drones for Scientific American. Let's continue the conversation he recorded with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVIES: You know, as drones are more compact and easier to use, you have to wonder about the possibility of a terrorist attack using a drone against a target in the United States. How much of a concern is that?

VILLASENOR: Unfortunately, I think that's a very legitimate concern and it's something that honestly keeps me up at night. I worry about that.

DAVIES: What's the scenario?

VILLASENOR: Well, I mean it doesn't take too much imagination to understand that a drone is very hard to stop and it flies low. And it isn't stopped by almost all of the infrastructure that we've got in place to make sure that people don't go to places they're not supposed to go to - fences and walls and gates and barriers and so on. It simply goes right over those things. And this is a well-recognized concern. There's a publicly available government report from it must be at least six or seven years ago that of that, you know, expressively identified this concern. And so as these drones get cheaper, more prevalent, easier to get, more common, and they attract less attention, it certainly raises, I think, the risks that they will fall into the wrong hands and be used inappropriately.

DAVIES: Are there any particular defenses or manufacturing requirements that would help?

VILLASENOR: Well, I'm not in the position where I would necessarily know all the defenses that people might be thinking about for these things. But I would hope that there are some steps that could be taken to try to minimize the chances that something, you know, that these things would be inappropriately used, but it's a very significant challenge.

DAVIES: I mean could you require manufacturers to put like tracking software, for example, or kill switches so that if you determine that a particular drone with a particular serial number fell into a suspicious hands that you could immobilize it?

VILLASENOR: Yeah. That's one possibility but of course the risk with things like that is they could end up being, you know, being - actually hurting more than - I mean that's certainly a possibility. But you can also imagine that if a hacker, for example, hacked into a drone and a drone that was doing nothing at all wrong and used a kill switch to drop it, you know, on and then caused some sort of damage or injuries, then that would've obviously been a security measure that backfired.

Another thing that we might think about doing is having some sort of a licensing procedure or some method to have a better accounting and record of who's actually using these drones. You need to, if you want to go fishing in the state of Montana you need to get a fishing license, or actually I think it's two fishing licenses, and you don't see anglers protesting at the state capital of Montana that that's an unfair intrusion of government. So I think if you want to fly around a pilotless airplane, it might not be unreasonable that the government has a right to know who you are and where you're going to use it.

DAVIES: Is there any evidence that known terrorist groups are trying to use drones or develop them?

VILLASENOR: There is plenty of evidence that terrorist groups have considered the use of drones in the past. For example, it's been reported that the Aum Shinrikyo sect, who carried out these Tokyo subway chemical attacks - I guess it was quite a while ago now - that they had actually experimented with drones. And unfortunately the, you know, the terrorists or the would-be terrorists have access to the same news media that the rest of do and so they are as aware as the rest of us of the proliferation of drones and so will clearly be thinking about drones as well.

DAVIES: In one of the pieces that you wrote, you painted a scenario of a dozen drones on a mission to serveil a suspected terrorist village or encampment. Do you want to just describe kind of the various uses you envisioned there?

VILLASENOR: Yeah. That was a description of how I think drones might be used in a military context a few years from now. And of course today in the military, drones are typically used one at a time, or if there are a multiple of them, they're flown independently.

But what I was envisioning was a world when U.S. military forces might be able to launch a whole group of drones – say, 12, 16, 24, something like that, and all of those drones could be controlled by one or two pilots who would fly them in a swarm towards, for example, a village where there was some suspected terrorist activity and then upon arriving at the village the drones could split up and perform highly specialized tasks.

You could have some drones - and again, these might be drones that are an inch or two across, not 20 feet across. Some of these tiny drones could be sniffing the air to identify chemical residues. Some of the drones could be monitoring electromagnetic wireless transmissions. Some of the drones could hide themselves in the scrub outside the village and provide imagery on an ongoing basis. So you can imagine these very complex teaming operations carried out by swarms of drones, and those are things that I think have very, very important application in a military context, but I don't see that happening as much domestically, for obvious reasons.

DAVIES: If we have these drones in the air, which have enormous capability to take pictures, to shoot video, to gather information which then can be, you know, integrated with other data, you know, other databases - you know, social networking, whatever - what are some concerns that that presents about, you know, the privacy that we treasure?

VILLASENOR: I think it presents some concerns, but less because the data is so much more than what we already have, but more because it's from such a different vantage point. We already are recorded and tracked to an extent that would've been absolutely shocking even 10 or 15 years ago. I think it's practically impossible to walk into a retail store or a commercial building or almost any public space these days without being filmed on video surveillance systems. Of course our mobile devices track our location throughout the day. Everything we read electronically or send by email or look at online, all that is stored. So on top of that already enormous database of digital footprints that all of us are leaving, the additional overhead surveillance that we might get from drones in most cases isn't going to be dramatically different.

Now, of course if you're a movie star and you've got 30 drones over your house, that's different. But for the average person it's not going to be different in terms of the amount of data. What is different and does obviously raise the privacy concerns is the vantage point of that data and the ability to collect these views that in the past were always or almost always private.

DAVIES: Now, if it's the FAA that's going to be developing regulations that permit the use of commercial drones in the United States, that's not an agency that typically deals with these subtle issues of, you know, privacy in the past. Is there concern that they're not quite equipped to handle that side of the equation?

VILLASENOR: Well, the FAA certainly, I would assume, has more aviation lawyers than they have Fourth Amendment constitutional lawyers. And to be fair to the FAA, their primary mission, in fact, if you go to the website, the FAA website, they say it very clearly - their primary mission is to provide what they call the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world. And frankly, I think they've done an extremely good job of that. So their concern, as they go through the steps that are mandated in this aviation bill that was just enacted on February 14, 2012, is, I think, first and foremost going to be to integrate drones into the airspace in a safe manner. And I think that is the right priority. And then in addition, of course, there are the privacy concerns. But I think it's going to be left to the broader government and to, you know, obviously with the input of non-governmental groups to address those.

DAVIES: So you were saying by the fall of 2015 there is supposed to be an integration of commercial drone use into airspace. What are some of the more immediate impacts of the new language in the FAA funding bill?

VILLASENOR: Well, one of the first things it provides for is that 90 days after enactment, which turns out to be May 14, 2012 - will be 90 days after President Obama signed it into law - that is when there is a provision that allows the use of public drones or, again, this is police forces and the like, and as long as those drones are 4.4 pounds or less, they've got to be operated within the line of sight of the operator, less than 400 feet above the ground and during daylight. And there are a few other conditions. So as of or after May 14th, 2012, we can expect that there will be an increasing number of police agencies and the like operating drones according to those constraints.

In addition, by November 10 of this year, that's the date when the FAA is supposed to come up with a plan that will talk in detail about how drones, in particular civil unmanned aircraft systems - in other words, drones that aren't operated by police agencies and the like - will be integrated into the national aerospace system no later than September 30 of 2015. So there will certainly be a lot of interest, come November of this year, in the details of that plan.

DAVIES: Well, John Villasenor, it's been really interesting. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

VILLASENOR: Thanks very much.

GROSS: John Villasenor is a senior fellow at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

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