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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.

Congress passed a law in 2012 containing a seven-page provision requiring the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fully integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace by September 2015. Currently, the FAA bans the use of drones for commercial purposes, but hobbyists are allowed to fly small drones.

“Congress passed the 2012 FAA Modernization Act to put the sights into play to see how we can actually articulate and see what we can do with this and have a transparent discussion about what its applications are and what are the rules and regulations that govern it,” Gosar said.

Gosar also said the conversation surrounding the use of drones within U.S. territory must involve the American public and the Constitution should be the touchstone for figuring out the application of this new technology.

“The Constitution is a brilliantly simple articulated message which you can break down into simple parts…it all starts with personal responsibility and personal accountability and I think once you break down the Constitution in that framework it’s very easy to have an application,” he said.

The FAA anticipates at least 30,000 of these aircraft in the domestic skies by 2020. Many states have started to introduce legislation to regulate drone use, as the domestic drone industry continues to grow.

Eighty-five drone-related bills have been introduced in 39 states so far this year, as reported by Politico. Virginia in February imposed a two-year moratorium on drone aircraft. Idaho passed this month a law prohibiting spying by drones without the consent of the people kept under surveillance. Most of the measures require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before a drone can be used in an investigation, except under specific circumstances, such as life-threatening cases.

As part of the regulatory process, the FAA will pick six sites around the country for UAV testing. The sites are to be selected by the end of the year.

Arizona has become a hub for U.S. military drone operations and defense contractors. The state is vying to become one of the six UAV test ranges the federal government will designate. Gosar, a member of the U.S. House Unmanned Systems Caucus, asserted he is “perfectly situated to be sitting at the table to have these discussions” about the commercial and defense capabilities of drones because of his state’s border issue and its strong defense industry presence.

The caucus, formed in 2009 by Reps. Howard McKeon (R-Calif.) and Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), has worked closely with the drone lobby to support the industry and “rapidly develop and deploy” more of these systems in the U.S.

According to Alex Bronstein-Moffly, an analyst with First Street Research Group, the 58 drone caucus members received a total of 2.3 million dollars in contributions from political action committees affiliated with drone manufacturers since 2011. Members of the caucus have collected around $1 million in campaign contributions from top drone manufacturers during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, according to campaign finance data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics.

“I see from behind the scenes that most of my colleagues are having this conversation with their constituents. We’re going to flesh out some of these things shortly in regards to where the test sites are, what are the applications, what are we going to allow the FAA, the military, and the commercial applications to do,” said Gosar.