By the end of this decade it is estimated that 30,000 drones will occupy national airspace. In 2012, Congress passed the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act, which ordered the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to promulgate regulations for the integration of drones into the national airspace. Law enforcement agencies around the country have purchased drones and are testing the new technology. As of May 2013, four Department of Justice (DOJ) divisions had acquired drones: the FBI; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF); Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA); and, the U.S. Marshals Service. On June 19, FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress that the FBI has deployed drones for surveillance on domestic soil and is developing guidelines for their future law enforcement use.
As compared with manned airplanes and helicopters, unmanned aerial surveillance bears unique risks to society's expectation of privacy. Drones, properly called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are practically invisible at altitudes where a manned aircraft could be seen with the naked eye. Smaller UAVs operate almost silently, making them significantly harder to detect. Moreover, UAVs can be equipped with sensory enhancing technologies such as thermal imaging devices, facial recognition software, Wi-Fi sniffers, GPS systems, license plate readers and cameras that can provide high resolution images from significant altitudes. This type of aerial surveillance presents the potential for intrusion of privacy far more pervasive than the flyover of a plane or helicopter. Drone surveillance has the potential to enable users to gather unprecedented amounts of information about people and retain it well into the future.