FAA Releases Lists of Drone Certificates—Many Questions Left Unanswered
View Map of Domestic Drone Authorizations in a larger map
This week the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) finally released its first round of records in response to EFF’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit for information on the agency's drone authorization program. The agency says the two lists it released include the names of all public and private entities that have applied for authorizations to fly drones domestically. These lists—which include the Certificates of Authorizations (COAs), issued to public entities like police departments, and the Special Airworthiness Certificates (SACs), issued to private drone manufacturers—show for the first time who is authorized to fly drones in the United States.
Some of the entities on the COA list are unsurprising. For example, journalists have reported that Customs and Border Protection uses Predator drones to patrol the borders. It is also well known that DARPA and other branches of the military are authorized to fly drones in the US. However, this is the first time we have seen the broad and varied list of other authorized organizations, including universities, police departments, and small towns and counties across the United States. The COA list includes universities and colleges like Cornell, the University of Colorado, Georgia Tech, and Eastern Gateway Community College, as well as police departments in North Little Rock, Arkansas; Arlington, Texas; Seattle, Washington; Gadsden, Alabama; and Ogden, Utah, to name just a few. The COA list also includes small cities and counties like Otter Tail, Minnesota and Herington, Kansas. The Google map linked above plots out the locations we were able to determine from the lists, and is color coded by whether the authorizations are active, expired or disapproved.
The second list we received includes all the manufacturers that have applied for authorizations to test-fly their drones. This list is less surprising and includes manufacturers like Honeywell, the maker of Miami-Dade's T-Hawk drone; the huge defense contractor Raytheon; and General Atomics, the manufacturer of the Predator drone. This list also includes registration or "N" numbers," serial numbers and model names, so it could be useful for determining when and where these drones are flying.
Unfortunately, these lists leave many questions unanswered. For example, the COA list does not include any information on which model of drone or how many drones each entity flies. In a meeting with the FAA today, the agency confirmed that there were about 300 active COAs and that the agency has issued about 700-750 authorizations since the program began in 2006. As there are only about 60 entities on the COA list, this means that many of the entities, if not all of them, have multiple COAs (for example, an FAA representative today said that University of Colorado may have had as many as 100 different COAs over the last six years). The list also does not explain why certain COA applications were "disapproved" and when other authorizations expired.
We raised these questions in our meeting with the FAA today and were assured the agency will release additional records with this important information soon. As we have written before and as Congressmen Markey and Barton (pdf) stated in their letter to the FAA today, drones pose serious implications for privacy, and the public should have all the information necessary to engage in informed debate over the incorporation of these devices into our daily lives. However, while we wait for additional information, these lists help to flesh out the picture of domestic drone use in the United States.