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Friday, March 1, 2013

Editor's Note: Return of the 'Drones'

 

It’s tough to be a manufacturer of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) systems these days. Not only are they facing regulatory hurdles to the Congressional mandate to integrate unmanned systems into the National Airspace System (NAS), but the more pressing and immediate threat, for once, isn’t coming from Washington; it’s coming, if you’ll pardon the over-used-phrase, from Main Street.

A number of recent headlines in the mainstream press have discussed the privacy, security and safety concerns of having “drones” (ugh), perhaps even weaponized ones, darken the skies all across the country. A recent Time Magazine cover story posed the question of what will happen when these “global killing machines are unleashed at home.” Additionally, in February, a Justice Department memo says the government can order a “drone” strike against U.S. citizens if they are believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaeda or “an associated force” even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the United States.

These two examples are discussing completely different roles of UAVs Time discusses the use of UAVs for law enforcement to track criminals or to patrol the border, and real-estate companies using UAVs to take aerial pictures of properties on the market, while the Justice Department is discussing more militaristic applications of the aircraft systems. However, the underlying message of these headlines is the same big brother is watching you and he has the capability to strike at any time.

“Like the public, this technology is also new to many in the media and it is not surprising when stories advance misperceptions of how UAS technology may be used in the future,” said Gretchen West, senior vice president at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). “That is why AUSVI is taking the lead in educating a wide variety of stakeholders, including Congress, the FAA, and of course, the media, about the virtually limitless potential of UAS to benefit society, as well as the economy. With the introduction of any new technology, there are always challenges. So AUVSI will continue its ongoing effort toward the safe and responsible integration of UAS into the National Airspace.”

The public has jumped overwhelmingly to the negative — assuming some sort of police state in which the government will use “drones” to patrol the skies, spying on citizens and dropping bombs when needed.

I think it’s a natural, and even a positive part of societal discourse to examine the role and applications of these systems. The introduction of any technology into society, particularly one with roots in warfare, can be nerve-wracking. What if the technology falls into the wrong hands? What if it is not used for its intended purpose? What about privacy? What about security? Safety?

But it seems in this case the public has jumped immediately and overwhelmingly to the negative — assuming some sort of Orwellian police state in which the government will use “drones” to patrol the skies, spying on citizens and dropping bombs when needed, all from a comfy bunker in some undisclosed location.

“We believe that most people are unaware of the small unmanned aircraft systems that we make, their vital role in supporting our troops and the valuable capabilities they will bring to the public,” UAV manufacturer AeroVironment told me. “First responders want to use our Qube system to search for lost hikers and lost children, investigate dangerous environments such as hazardous material spills and fires, improve accident scene investigations, identify survivors and access routes in the aftermath of disasters and support critical life saving events.”

Maybe I’m naïve and trusting, but I have to trust FAA on this one. Many have lamented the lack of speed FAA has shown in opening up civilian airspace to UAV manufacturers for testing and demonstrations of the systems for civilian uses. But when you’re faced with public perception this decidedly negative, what else was the agency supposed to do? Ensuring the safety and security of the airspace is of the utmost importance to the agency, and achieving that is not always fast.

What’s alarming to me is that this PR nightmare that the UAV industry is facing in this country could derail the efforts of regulators and others to integrate these systems in the NAS. This integration is a key part of NextGen; and this could potentially add another hurdle to modernize the airspace, which has already encountered numerous hurdles on the way to implementation.

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