Drones coming home to roost

Finally, Here’s Every Organization Allowed to Fly Drones in the US

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After months of stalling, the Federal Aviation Administration has at last released an updated list of the organizations that have approval to fly drones in US airspace—and which are currently seeking it. New approvals include the ATF and the Army Corps of Engineers, Michigan State Police, local police in Mobile and Daytona Beach, and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District.

The FAA is in no hurry to let the public know which police departments, universities and other government agencies have applied for drone waivers, much less which have received them. It took a lawsuit in April 2011 to get the first list released to the public at all, and the FAA hasn’t released an updated version since January 2013.

On September 2, ten months after we  submitted a Freedom of Information Actrequest for the list, the FAA at last mailed us a photocopied-but-unredacted printout. At thirty-four pages long, this list includes each of the 935 drone waiver applications—more precisely, a “Certificate of Waiver or Authorization” or “COA”—that were completed between November 1, 2012 and June 19, 2014.

Three weeks later, we received the electronic copy of the spreadsheet, which federal law requires the FAA to provide. On this list is every organization—here listed as “Sponsors”—legally permitted to fly drones in the US.

A status of “Active (Approved)” confirms that the agency received a waiver to fly drones in a particular geographic area. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), for instance, which reported spending some $600,000 on unmanned vehicles as of May 2013, has two active drone waivers that expire in April 2015 and January 2016, respectively. ATF had not appeared on previous FAA lists.

Statuses of “Pending”, “Released”, “Validated” or “Validation Completed” indicates that the application is working its way through the review process, which is supposed to be completed in 60 business days. The five applications listed as “Disapproved” were rejected by the FAA, while “Cancelled” waivers were withdrawn from consideration.

Universities and colleges make up a full quarter of the two hundred-plus government agencies that submitted drone waiver applications in the last two years. Other research bodies like NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration received dozens of waivers, as well.

The military boasts another chunk of the waiver applications, including national guard units in nine states, plus Guam. Customs and Border Protection, which flies surveillance drones along the border, has twelve applications on the list. Interestingly, the FBI put in for just one waiver in the same time, according to the list.

More on the FBI’s use of drones

There are a total of eight police departments that sought drone waivers in this period. The state police in Michigan scored two waivers, as did police in Daytona Beach.Police departments in Arlington, Texas and Mobile, Alabama also secured a single authorization. We are attempting to confirm whether applications submitted by the Illinois State Police, Suffolk County (New York) Police Department, Pelham Police Department and Somerset Police Department were approved; the FAA list does not specify the particular state for the latter two.

Another eleven sheriffs departments also put in requests to fly drones. Ten of these have been approved for at least one waiver: Canyon County, Idaho; Grand Forks County, North Dakota; Lorain County, Ohio; Medina County, Ohio; Mesa County, Colorado; Montgomery County, Texas; Oakland County, Michigan; Polk County, Florida; Ventura County, California; and Wayne County (state confirmation pending).

The list also includes a pending waiver application for the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office, but the state is not specified. (For the curious, sixteen states contain a Wayne County, while ten states are home to a Hancock County.)

Other notable agencies include the California State Parks system and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, each of which has one drone application pending. Three cities are also listed without specifying the particular office seeking drone authorization: Dunsmuir, California; Herington, Kansas; and Lenexa, Kansas.

Obtaining this information was a long and difficult process. MuckRock submitted a FOIA request for the COA applicants late last November, which the FAA initially denied on wobbly grounds of ongoing litigation.

The FAA next tried utter silence and then absurd fees—they tossed out a figure of $446 per waiver, which we contested—before finally agreeing after the seventh followup to process the request. The due date was set for April 2… then bumped to June 9… and then extended to July 7… and August 7… and finally September 5.

Again, all this delay was over a simple listing of which agencies had completed the drone waiver application process. We noted this repeatedly to FAA FOIA officials, but never received an explanation for the delay.

Watch Motherboard’s documentary on UAV over the US, “Drone On”:


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