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Here Come the WiFi Drones

Commercial drones with onboard WiFi could be flying in US airspace by the fall of 2015.

Dan Jones

November 11, 2013

4 Min Read
Here Come the WiFi Drones

By the fall of 2015, nonmilitary unmanned aircraft (drones) are set to be flying in US airspace, and at least some will be equipped with WiFi and other communications equipment. This scenario could stir up new issues around security and privacy on terra firma.

Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration sent its plan for the "safe acceleration of the integration of civil UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] into the National Airspace System" (NAS) to several government transportation committees. The plan calls for commercial drones to be flying "not later than September 30, 2015" and earlier if possible.

The agency says drones could be used for anything from crime scene investigations to border patrol and search and rescue missions. The New York Police Department has already expressed interest in using unmanned aircraft as a surveillance tool. The FAA is also expecting drones to be used in agricultural applications.

At least 81 public organizations in the US have applied for special certification from the FAA to fly drones in domestic airspace, according to a list obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation . These include universities and local police and fire departments.

The FAA is defining -- and refining -- a plan for the safe integration of drones into US airspace. Operator training and collision sensors are seen as crucial, given the many types and sizes of drones expected to arrive in US airspace.

Such measures are important for flight safety. CNN reported this spring that a mysterious drone came within 200 feet of a commercial jetliner above John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. Drones could damage or down commercial aircraft by crashing into them or being sucked into a jet engine of the plane, depending on the unmanned craft's size.

The privacy issues around the use of drones are cloudier. The FAA states in the report:

  • Although there is no Federal law that specifically addresses privacy concerns with respect to civil UAS operations, many states have laws that protect individuals from invasions of privacy which could be applied to intrusions committed by using a UAS.
    Integrating public and civil UAS into the NAS carries certain national security implications, including cyber and communications security, domestic framework for US government operations, national airspace and defense, airman vetting/general aviation, and privacy concerns. In coordination with the National Security Staff at the White House, the FAA is working in conjunction with relevant agency partners on an Interagency Policy Committee to address these issues.

This could lead to some interesting concerns about WiFi snooping and other communications surveillance using drones, particularly in the current climate. The burgeoning hobbyist industry for small drones has already shown how easy it is to install WiFi as a control mechanism on remote controlled aircraft. Hobbyist drones can already be flown in the US at 400 feet and below and within sight of the operator. Companies such as Parrot SA make WiFi-equipped quadricopters for drone fanciers.

Adam Conway, vice president of product management at Aerohive Networks Inc. , told us his company has already been experimenting with a WiFi access point in a drone. It flew a drone a few hundred feet above Sunnyvale, Calif., with a hotspot with a 4G module on board and got connected. Such temporary WiFi could obviously provide connectivity in disaster recovery situations and remote areas. However, there are many ways to use WiFi for snooping on other 802.11 users.

Brendan O'Connor, a law student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a researcher at the consulting firm Malice Afterthought, recently demonstrated the capabilities of CreepyDOL, a tiny and cheap WiFi sensor that can gather information about iPhone users as they walk around their neighborhood. Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) is battling a class action after it collected unencrypted WiFi data when its Google Maps cars took more than just snaps of areas around the world.

With ever-quieter drones being developed, it's possible to see how unmanned aircraft could be used as a surveillance and data collection tool in US airspace in the coming years. And it's hard to imagine that the topic of spying and snooping won't still be high on the public agenda come September 2015. (See: Another Day, Another Domestic Spying Revelation.)

— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Dan Jones

Mobile Editor

Dan is to hats what Will.I.Am is to ridiculous eyewear. Fedora, trilby, tam-o-shanter -- all have graced the Jones pate during his career as the go-to purveyor of mobile essentials.

But hey, Dan is so much more than 4G maps and state-of-the-art headgear. Before joining the Light Reading team in 2002 he was an award-winning cult hit on Broadway (with four 'Toni' awards, two 'Emma' gongs and a 'Brian' to his name) with his one-man show, "Dan Sings the Show Tunes."

His perfectly crafted blogs, falling under the "Jonestown" banner, have been compared to the works of Chekhov. But only by Dan.

He lives in Brooklyn with cats.

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