Influence Analytics: Drones in domestic skies

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An MQ-9 Reaper taxis down a runway. Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson/Wikimedia Commons

Jeff Bezos is not the only businessman to dream of a drone filled future. Now that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has said “yes” to a half dozen film companies who asked permission to use drones in their work, the already large pile of petitions from other would-be droners is growing even higher. At least 13 petitioners have added their pleas for exemptions from a prohibition on commercial drone use since Sept. 29, according to Sunlight’s Scout tool. As of Sept. 25, the agency was already considering 40 such petitions.

These include Northern Virginia OmniVersatile Solutions, LLC, a company that wants to use drones to help clients practice “precision agriculture.” On its website, the company claims it has $16 million in current defense contracts with the federal government. Another, First Flight Photography, LLC, wants to conduct aerial photography. Another, Industrial Aerobotics, LLC, wants to do aerial surveys for industries including agriculture, power utilities and professional surveyors.

The film companies were helped along in their quest at the FAA by the considerable lobbying heft of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Headed by former Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., the MPAA has reported spending more than $26 million since 1989 on federal lobbying alone; in 2013-2014, the total reported is more than $2.8 million, according to Influence Explorer. While he was in Congress, Dodd was the recipient of at least $5,000 from the MPAA PAC and from former MPAA president Jack Valenti and his wife.

Dodd is mentioned by name in the press release issued by the FAA on Sept. 25; Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced the exemptions in a conference call with Dodd and the FAA Administrator, Michael Huerta.

Dodd is not registered as a lobbyist.

(credits: Scout, Influence Explorer.)

Another name for drone is sometimes model airplane. Comments have been pouring into the FAA from hobbyists who want to have their say about the agency’s proposal on how to define model aircraft, which Congress said in a 2012 law should be exempt from any FAA regulations of drones. The agency has received more than 33,000 total comments, according to Regulations.gov, with the comment period closing Sept. 23. Many were inspired by the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a trade group representing the hobbyists. The group has filed a petition for review in the U.S. Court of Appeals of the proposed FAA rule, charging that the FAA’s definition of model aircraft violates Congress’ mandate.

The FAA is expected to issue new rules on the general use of drones in U.S. airspace over the next few years; many in the industry want the agency to hurry up. Meanwhile, our friends at MuckRock have finally gotten the agency to cough up records showing which government agencies have already been authorized to use drones.

(credits: Docket Wrench.)

Drones in Congress. Drones are becoming a popular and controversial topic of both speechifying and bill writing on Capitol Hill. Most famously, in March 2013, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., filibustered for more than 13 hours against the use of drones in surveillance of the general population as a way to put off the nomination vote for President Barack Obama’s pick to head the CIA, John Brennan — a filibuster reflected in this chart from Capitol Words, which shows a huge spike that month with 155 mentions.

Rand has sponsored a bill that would prohibit the federal government from using a drone to gather evidence about criminal conduct of individuals — but with the notable exceptions of illegal immigrants, for countering terrorist attacks and “by law enforcement under exigent circumstances.” He was criticized by some admirers soon after for doing an “about face” on his strong anti-drone stance by saying on Fox News that it’s ok to use drones to crack down on a crime in action. In June of this year, MSNBC called him out for saying he supports using drones to track down Guantanamo Bay prisoners who are planning terrorist attacks.

Overall, at least ten bills have been introduced concerning use of drones by the federal government since January 2013, according to a search in OpenCongress. Most are sponsored by Republicans who do not want the Central Intelligence Agencyto have authority to use drones. However, Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass.; Mark Udall, D-Colo.; and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., have all sponsored bills that address possible privacy concerns as the FAA opens up air space to use of drones.

(credits: Capitol Words, Open Congress.)

And in the states. State governments have also been dealing in drones. Most recently, in California, Democrat Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill, AB 1327, that would have put restrictions on law enforcement agencies using drones for surveillance. However, Brown did sign another bill, AB 2306, which attempts to crack down on paparazzi use of drones and other intrusive methods of getting photos and film of celebrities.

Search tips: When searching for information on drones with Sunlight tools, a number of terms are helpful: “drones,” “unmanned aerial“, “unmanned aircraft,” and even the simple: “unmanned.”