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The Drone Industry Wants a Makeover

Drone companies try to convince the public there's more to them than spying and killing

A TigerShark unmanned aerial vehicle descends to land at an undisclosed location.
U.S. Navy photo/Released
February 21, 2013 5:03 PM ET

It's been a rough couple of months for drone advocates. John Brennan's CIA confirmation hearing and the Department of Justice's leaked white paper on the government's "kill list" have finally brought the issue of targeted killing to the forefront of the U.S. foreign policy debate. At the center of that debate is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, both internationally and domestically. Though using UAVs to carry out targeted killing in places like Yemen and Pakistan is still popular, the idea of domestic drones populating U.S. skies doesn't sit nearly as well with a lot of people – as the Seattle police department recently discovered when it had to cancel a planned drone program amid public outcry.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the primary trade group that advocates for drone manufacturers, is working to counter those negative impressions. Late last year, they launched a website called IncreasingHumanPotential.org, which sounds like an Orwellian cyborg-development project – an impression only strengthened by the creepy Vitruvian Man homage they're using for a logo. The site highlights the positive aspects of drones, such as their ability to survey farmland and gather data in storms that would otherwise be impossible to collect. It's a simple strategy, and one probably best taken with the same skepticism that should accompany a tobacco lobbyist carrying on about how smoking is a great way to meet people. In fact, most resistance to domestic drones is based on the completely rational fear that they will be used as surveillance devices on people's private activities – not on the straw man argument that UAVs are incapable of performing other valuable tasks.

At Least We're Not Measles: Rationalizing Drone Attacks Hits New Low

The drone industry is afraid of what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia – where local lawmakers instituted a two-year moratorium on police drone use in criminal investigations or arming drones with so-called less-lethal weapons – spreading to other cities and states. The Virginia General Assembly approved instituting a similar state-wide two-year moratorium, and state legislatures across the country have taken up bills that would require police to obtain a warrant before using UAVs.

In an attempt to combat the Virginia bill, Peter Bale, chairman of the board for AUVSI, told the Chamber of Commerce of an eastern Virginia town that unmanned aircraft could bring "2,380 new jobs . . . and $460 million in economic impact" to Virginia, and that the state-level legislation would be "a major stumbling block."

"When people learn how unmanned aircraft can help find missing children, aid firefighters battling wildfires or advance scientific research, they are supportive," Melanie Hinton, a spokesperson for AUVSI says in an email.

As important as cities instituting restrictions is the FAA's perceived reluctance to simply open the door to AUVSI's members and open the sky to their drones. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 was intended to speed up the process of integrating drones into U.S. airspace by September 2015, but the FAA hasn't granted licenses as quickly as AUVSI's members want – and only recently sought to establish six test sites across the country for drone integration trial runs, after a delay.  (AUVSI complaining about the FAA is a bit rich, though, considering drone lobbyists wrote the legislation authorizing domestic drone use.) The annual drone conference last week focused on how the industry could lobby Congress to accelerate the process.

With cuts to the defense budget for UAVs expected to continue, the domestic market for drone manufacturers is critical, and it could reach $90 billion over the next decade according to FAA estimates. Getting restrictions in place early is important to limit the potential for spying abuses – to stave off drone normalization before it happens. Even Peter Bale, the AUVSI chairperson, recently acknowledged the ubiquity of surveillance, saying: "You have got cameras on every corner of every street now." We're seeing positive movement to keep domestic drones from further encroaching on our privacy. But with $90 billion up for grabs, expect the drone makeover to continue.

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