The FBI uses drones inside the United States for surveillance of stationary subjects, and the privacy implications of such operations are "worthy of debate," the agency's director said.
Robert Mueller's comments Wednesday added context on the country's rapidly increasing use — military and otherwise — of the unmanned aerial technology that's already raised concerns in countries such as Pakistan and at home over the killing of U.S. citizens overseas.
Mueller said the domestic law enforcement agency very seldom uses drones now, but it is developing guidelines that will shape how they are to be used.
There will be a number of issues regarding drones "as they become more omnipresent, not the least of which is the drones in airspace and also the threat on privacy," Mueller said in an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"We already have, to a certain extent, a body of law that relates to aerial surveillance and privacy relating to helicopters and small aircraft … which could well be adapted to the use of drones," Mueller said. "It's still in its nascent stages … but it's worthy of debate and perhaps legislation down the road."
The aerospace industry forecasts a worldwide deployment of almost 30,000 drones by 2018, with the United States accounting for half of them.
Drones "allow us to learn critical information that otherwise would be difficult to obtain without introducing serious risk to law enforcement personnel," the FBI said in a statement following Mueller's comments.
The FBI used drones at night during a six-day hostage standoff in Alabama earlier this year. The standoff ended when members of an FBI rescue team stormed an underground bunker, killing a gunman before he could harm a five-year-old boy held hostage.
The FBI said its unmanned aerial vehicles are used only to conduct surveillance operations on stationary subjects. In each instance, the FBI first must obtain the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration to use the aircraft in a very confined geographic area.