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Drones Across US Skies Closer to Reality

FAA solicits plans for 6 domestic drone test sites

Andrea Germanos, staff writer

(Image: outtacontext via flickr)

A day when thousands of drones are flying across U.S. skies is not that far away.  In a step to bring this closer to reality, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced on Thursday it was soliciting proposals for six drone research and test sites around the country.

Transportation secretary Ray LaHood said, “This research will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation’s skies.”

Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said in a statement that the FAA's announcement was "an important milestone on the path toward unlocking the potential of unmanned aircraft." Toscano lamented that the number of test sites had been limited to six, saying, "states across the country have been eager" to be a designated test site.

The FAA predicts 10,000 domestic drones in use by 2018, the Associated Press reports.

In National Geographic, science writer John Horgan notes how drone makers are trying to push drones into the civilian landscape:

So far only a dozen police departments, including ones in Miami and Seattle, have applied to the FAA for permits to fly drones. But drone advocates—who generally prefer the term UAV, for unmanned aerial vehicle—say all 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. are potential customers. They hope UAVs will soon become essential too for agriculture (checking and spraying crops, finding lost cattle), journalism (scoping out public events or celebrity backyards), weather forecasting, traffic control. “The sky’s the limit, pun intended,” says Bill Borgia, an engineer at Lockheed Martin. “Once we get UAVs in the hands of potential users, they’ll think of lots of cool applications.” [...]

If the FAA relaxes its rules, says Mark Brown, the civilian market for drones—and especially small, low-cost, tactical drones—could soon dwarf military sales, which in 2011 totaled more than three billion dollars. Brown, a former astronaut who is now an aerospace consultant in Dayton, Ohio, helps bring drone manufacturers and potential customers together. The success of military UAVs, he contends, has created “an appetite for more, more, more!”

The FAA announcement comes a day after legislation was introduced by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) to limit the use of domestic drones, and, The Hill reports, the legislation "would require warrants for drone use in criminal cases, with the exception of emergency situations like fires or drought monitoring."

"It doesn't take a constitutional law professor to see why legislation is needed to protect the rights of the American people," Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), the bill's co-sponsor, in a speech on the floor of the House this week. 

"The right of a reasonable expectation of privacy is a constitutional right. Any form of snooping or spying, surveillance or eavesdropping goes against the rights that are outlined in the Constitution." 

Poe and Lofgren's legislation was praised by the ACLU.

"Unmanned drones must not become a perpetual presence in our lives, hovering over us, following us and recording our every move," Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the ACLU, said in a statement. "Strict rules should govern the use of drones by the government. By requiring that law enforcement secure judicial approval before using drones, this legislation achieves the right balance for the use of these eyes in the sky."

The FAA is soliciting public comment on its program's privacy approach. Information on where to send the input is found in this document (pdf).

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