U.S. lags in putting drones to commercial use, FAA should move faster, advocates say

By Vesko Cholakov -- Medill News Service  |  Feb. 5, 2014 at 3:05 PM
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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. is lagging on commercial use of drones, manufacturers and scientists told the Senate science committee, but several senators said they want to be sure the unmanned aerial vehicles won’t be used to spy on Americans.

“These 20th century eyes in the skies shouldn’t become spies in the skies,” said Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who held up an inexpensive drone equipped with two cameras at the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee meeting.

But privacy concerns aren’t a reason to limit the commercial use of drones in the U.S., Missy Cummings, director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University's Institute for Brain Sciences, told the committee. She said unmanned aerial vehicles -- UAVs -- are only one type of technology that can be used for surveillance. There are small bug robots that can be slipped into bags, and ground technologies like cars will soon have cameras inside and outside, she said.

The real problem is the government is lacking experts with understanding of the technology, Cummings said.

Currently, the FAA issues domestic drone authorizations on a case-by-case basis; they are limited to government agencies, universities and law enforcement. The agency must finalize plans for allowing drones in domestic airspace by 2015 under a law passed by Congress in 2012.

The FAA has set six test sites to review safety issues, but has said it likely will not meet the 2015 deadline.

“If I look up and see a drone flying over my house under the FAA’s current plan, is there any way I could find out what information that drone is collecting?” asked Markey, who sponsored a privacy bill to limit drones’ use. The answer is no, he said.

Chris Calabrese of the American Civil Liberties Union said First and Fourth Amendment rights could be jeopardized if privacy issues aren’t addressed before the drones hit U.S. airspace in large numbers. He supported a ban on weaponization and surveillance, but agreed that narrow areas like agricultural use do not pose threats and can receive expedited treatment.

Some other countries already allow UAVs in their airspace for commercial use.

“Well before Amazon made their recent announcement for drone package delivery, companies in Australia and China beat them to it,” Cummings said.

In the last two decades Yamaha Motor Corp. has sold more than 2,600 RMAX remotely piloted helicopters for agricultural use in Japan. The drone costs $100,000, weighs 140 pounds, stands three and half feet tall and 90 percent of farmers use it for crop dusting, spot spraying, weed and pest control and fertilization, said Henio Arcangeli, Yamaha vice president for new business development. Australia and South Korea have recently adopted the technology, too, he said.

In Great Britain, drones deliver pizza, serve food in restaurants and take commercial photos, Cummings said. At a recent music festival in South Africa, small robots provided beer to fans who placed orders through a smartphone app.

"Why are we not at the forefront of the world?" asked Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.

The U.S. has one of the largest passenger fleets in the world and its airspace is significantly more complex than that of Japan, especially at lower altitudes where drones fly, said Michael Huerta, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA expects 7,500 UAVs in the skies within five years of the regulations being set.

“We don't have a complete understanding of where this might go in the future," he said.

"One of the most important problems the FAA and the industry are trying to solve is avoiding collisions between unmanned and piloted aircraft," said Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia.

The accident record of UAVs used to be worse than any other type of aircraft but is rapidly improving. Some models, like the military Predator by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., are safer than manned aircraft, Cummings said.

“As a former fighter pilot and a private pilot, I understand the importance of what I am saying -- which is that a drone is, on average, a better pilot than I am,” she said.

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