Privacy Takes Back Seat To Jobs in Drone Debate

By: - August 20, 2013 12:00 am

The RAPTR drone helicopter manufactured by Tactical Electronics in Broken Arrow, Okla., is displayed at the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in Washington, D.C. The drone is equipped with heat–sensing cameras, a color video feed and is designed for law enforcement use. (Stateline/Maggie Clark)

In the balancing act over state concerns about dronesurveillance and the opportunity for drone-related jobs, economic interestsappear to be winning out.

Lured by the possibility of winning one of six Federal AviationAdministration test sites to integrate drones into the national airspace andthe aerospace jobs that come with it, at least 16 states presented theircredentials to the drone industry and the federal government at the recent Associationfor Unmanned Aerial Systems International (AUVSI) conference in Washington, D.C.

The jobs created around an FAA test site could be a boon forstates—Utah, for instance, estimates a test site would bring at least 23,000new jobs. Nationally, at least 70,000 jobs will be created in the first threeyears of drone integration to the national airspace, according to AUVSI.

Tougher privacy laws were seen as a non-starter for stateswanting to attract drone jobs and win a test site.

“What kind of message would that send to the selectioncommittee for the FAA site that we wanted to limit drone use and then also wantedthe test site?” said North Dakota Republican Sen. Tony Grindberg, explaininghow the state legislature defeated a droneprivacy bill this year.

At least six states passed lawsthis year to restrict drone use by law enforcement and set limits on howinformation collected from a drone, such as photos or videos, can be used.   But more states are doing all they can toappeal to the emerging industry.

Oklahoma’s Gov. Mary Fallin has a cabinet-level secretarydedicated to attracting UAV companies to the state. New Mexico has alreadysecured an FAA test site given its long history of military testing. Inpromotional materials, Utah touts that it is “one of the few states withunified executive and legislative support for UAV testing.”

Even in Virginia, where tea-partiers and civil libertariansworked together to pass a two-year moratorium on drone use by anyone other thanthe military, the economic temptation of aerospace jobs and an FAA test site convincedthe legislature and the governor to all but gut the moratorium in a specialsession.

“Not only would future job prospects dim, but currentbusinesses and those they employ would be at risk,” warned Peter Bale, chairmanof the AUVSI, in a letter to McDonnell. “More than 50 companies thatmanufacture UAVs have a footprint in Virginia. A moratorium would create anunfriendly environment for these companies, which as a result might look totake their business, as well as jobs, elsewhere.”

In response, Gov. Bob McDonnell added exemptions to themoratorium for researchers and companies to test drones, so long as they arenot armed or used for surveillance. Virginia and New Jersey are teaming up toapply for a joint drone test site, competing against 22 other statesin vying for one of the spots.

Maine’s governor, too, refusedto sign a privacy-oriented bill limiting drone use in the state. “This billwill harm any opportunity Maine has to create new jobs in the aerospaceindustry,” Gov. Paul LePage wrote in his veto message of a bill limiting lawenforcement use of drones. “It is the wrong message to send if we want thesejobs.” Instead, LePage directedthe state Department of Public Safety to create guidelines for law enforcementuse of drones.

A model policyfrom the Aerospace States Association, the Council of State Governments and theNational Conference of State Legislatures encourages states to considerrequiring a warrant for surveillance of an individual, prohibit the re-use ofvideo or photos collected by a drone for other investigations, and ban weaponsfrom domestic drones.

The FAA will announce the six winners of the test sites in December.

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