Drones

The Federal Aviation Administration announced Monday that it has named six states that will host test sites for the development of private-sector drones.

With that, the FAA offered a glimpse of a possible future – one that raises a number of concerns about privacy, safety, security and the law.

The FAA clearly sees drones as having tremendous potential. According to an Associated Press report, it expects to see as many as 7,500 drones in use within five years of their approval for use within U.S. airspace.

To facilitate that, the agency wants to develop “operational guidelines” for drones by December 2015. The sites in the six approved states – Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia – are intended to provide a diverse set of climatic and geographic challenges as well as differing air-traffic environments.

Officials of the states involved see the research facilities as economic boons that could bring solid and well-paying jobs. An industry-backed study predicted drones would add a total of 70,000 new jobs within three years of their approval and that drone pilots would make between $85,000 and $115,000.

Politicians from the affected states seemed to accept that rosy scenario. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said, “This is wonderful news for Nevada that creates a huge opportunity for our economy.” His Democratic colleague, Sen. Charles Schumer, said the decision was a “slam dunk” for upstate New York.

It fell to some strange political bedfellows to raise more troubling concerns. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has introduced a bill that would ban the use of drones to check for criminal or regulatory violations without a warrant.

Referring to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to ban extra-large soft drinks, Paul said, “I just don’t like the concept of drones flying over barbecues in New York to see whether you have a Big Gulp in your backyard or whether you are separating your recyclables according to the city mandates.”

He shares that worry with the American Civil Liberties Union. It said in a report last year that drones take the country further toward “a surveillance society in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the authorities.”

Those are legitimate objections, but they just scratch the surface.

For starters, what constitutes a drone? The word is typically used to mean a small, pilotless aircraft controlled from the ground by an operator. But what is the distinction between a remote-controlled model aircraft and a drone?

The Navy has tested a drone the size of fighter jet and there is no reason a drone could not be larger, even much larger. At the same time, others have proposed (and perhaps tested) drones the size of hummingbirds or even insects. Something like that could hover over your barbecue – or maybe even under it.

Drones could be flown by a computer as well. Is that in our future, too?

Even more interesting are questions about the altitudes at which drones may operate. Will drones be allowed to share airspace with piloted aircraft – even the airlines? If not, they will be down in Paul’s backyard. If they are allowed higher, how much longer until most flying is done with drones? There is no technical reason an airliner could not be flown remotely.

As to privacy, why assume the only threat is from government surveillance? A drone could be checking for homes to burglarize, reasons to deny an insurance policy or whether a spouse is cheating.

The possibilities, the potential and the questions are endless. There is more to this than is likely to be sorted out in two years.

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