U.S. Government Watchdog: Drones Not Ready for Prime Time

Some law enforcers can't wait, but significant air-safety and privacy issues loom over domestic program.

NASA will monitor activity from Tropical Storm Gabrielle using an unmanned Global Hawk aircraft expected to launch Wednesday.

NASA will monitor activity from Tropical Storm Gabrielle using an unmanned Global Hawk aircraft expected to launch Wednesday.

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Domestic drones aren't ready for prime time, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office, which cited safety and privacy issues as the main hang-ups before the unmanned aerial vehicles become ubiquitous in America's skies.

The main issue, the GAO says, is that drones can't be trusted to not crash into each other or other aircraft. Drones are generally unable to "detect, sense, and avoid airborne objects in a manner similar to 'see and avoid' by a pilot in a manned aircraft," according to the report.

[The Coming Drone Revolution: What You Should Know]

Although the Federal Aviation Administration has granted a limited number of provisionary permits to law enforcement agencies and universities to fly drones since the beginning of the year, Congress expects up to 30,000 drones to be flying over America within a few years.

But the GAO says the FAA hasn't been acting quickly enough, and still faces "significant work" that "raise[s] concerns about when [drone] integration in the national airspace system will be achieved."

For one, the GAO had previously suggested that Congress create a separate FAA office that would address specific drone concerns, but "such a body has not been created."

The federal government also has no real plan in place to protect privacy, according to the report. A June 2012 poll by Monmouth University found that 42 percent of Americans would be "very concerned" about their privacy if law enforcement started using drones, and just 15 percent said they wouldn't be concerned at all.

"Many stakeholders believe that there should be federal regulations … to specifically protect the privacy of individuals," the report says. But "it is not clear what entity should be responsible for addressing privacy concerns across the federal government."

[FAA Releases List of Registered Drone Operators]

The GAO says it has made "numerous recommendations to agencies over the last several years to address weaknesses in policies and procedures related to privacy," but that few policies have been made.

Despite the GAO report, some law enforcement agencies are proceeding full-steam ahead with preliminary FAA exemptions to own and operate drones. So far, the FAA has granted waivers to at least nine law enforcement agencies in six states.

The report says that state and local law enforcement agencies "represent the greatest potential users of small [drones]" due to the fact that they offer many of the same capabilities of a helicopter at a cost of as low as $30,000. There are nearly 150 types of small drones that agencies can choose from, according to the report.

In the near term, drones are likely to be used sparingly across the country, but the GAO report says the FAA's job is unlikely to get any easier.

"FAA's goal is to eventually permit … routing UAS operations in the national airspace while ensuring safety," the report says. "As the list of potential uses for [drones] grows, so do the concerns about how they might affect existing military and non-military aviation as well as concerns about how they might be used."

Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at jkoebler@usnews.com.