Can the Pros of Domestic Drones Outweigh the Pitfalls?

WASHINGTON – Drones have become an integral part of America’s war efforts, and like many other technologies used by the military, a debate has begun over the civilian applications of the emerging technology on U.S. soil.

Attendees at a daylong conference on drones this week in Washington heard hopes from lawmakers and analysts that domestic drone use could be a boon to agriculture and help drive economic growth.

For many years, the United States has used drones to hunt and kill enemy combatants. Since 2002, the U.S. government has used drones – known as Unmanned Aircraft Vehicles (UAV) to industry experts – as part of the CIA’s armed Predator drone program, which targets al-Qaeda leaders.

Nevertheless, the majority of U.S. drone missions, including in war zones, are still flown for surveillance.

The U.S. drone campaign became increasingly controversial as the Obama administration ramped up the program – a move that captured the attention of more Americans. By mid-April 2013, President Obama had authorized 307 strikes in Pakistan alone, according to research by the New America Foundation.

The subject of drones dominated the fight over John Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA. Many senators used Brennan’s confirmation process to press the administration on its internal legal rationale for its drone program and bring the issue to the attention of the American public. One of the most notable examples was Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) 13-hour filibuster aimed at blocking Brennan’s nomination.

Recently, the public debate has turned to potential use of drones within U.S. territory. In March, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee examined the potential benefits of the domestic application of unmanned vehicles. During the hearing, however, many senators expressed concern about the constitutional and privacy rights of American citizens.

Voters have also shown some concern over the government’s potential use of drones against citizens on U.S. soil. In a February Fox News survey, the percentage of Americans who approved of drones declined as the suggested applications turned from foreign terrorist suspects overseas to U.S. citizens suspected of the same crime on American soil.

The potential application of drones in the U.S. is not limited to law enforcement and national security purposes. A far stretch from the military strikes that most people associate with drones, entrepreneurs have begun developing a host of ideas for using them in the private sector.

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) told the audience at an event held by the New America Foundation he believes drones could become an engine of job growth.  His constituents already use drones for farming and logging, he said. Missy Cummings, associate professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, told the attendants at the Tuesday event she thinks drones could potentially revolutionize the agriculture industry, providing farmers with crop surveillance and crop maintenance.

Besides the potential commercial use of unmanned vehicles, smaller models are currently being used domestically for search and rescue missions and law enforcement efforts.

Gosar thinks drones could also help guide efforts to prevent and fight natural disasters, such as the devastating forest fire in Arizona last year that cost the federal government $400 million to put out and $2.5 billion in lost assets.

The Arizona representative said that it is necessary to “flesh out the details” on how drones can be applied for domestic uses and that he believes the American public will choose the best domestic application for drones once they become more informed on the subject.