Although drones are usually associated with military strikes, the debate over domestic uses for unmanned aircraft rages on many fronts.
Proponents argue that drones will bring vast improvements to search and rescue, border patrol and other law enforcement efforts. Use has already been approved for several police departments around the country. Authorities in Arlington, TX, used a drone to boost security during Super Bowl 2011.
Commercial use could extend to many business sectors, as varied as agriculture, real estate, energy exploration and journalism.
Critics, on the other hand, voice concerns about public safety and privacy, noting that drones enable long-term surveillance of citizens.
An age of domestic drones would also raise new concerns about national security. Terrorists could have new-found access to sensitive government areas as well as a heightened ability to study targets before attack.
In February, President Obama signed legislation requiring the Federal Aviation Administration to assemble rules for allowing drones in U.S. airspace by 2015.
This opens new territory not only for drone use and equipment manufacturers, but for the FAA, which is not accustomed to dealing with privacy issues.
As Benjamin Wittes and John Villasenor of the Brookings Institution wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece last month, “The FAA has a lot on its plate.”
The House Unmanned Systems Caucus, headed by Rep. Buck McKeon (CA-R) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX), cheered passage of the FAA bill.
Significant lobbying preceded Obama’s signature. More than 200 organizations lobbied the bill, the AA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act, which encompassed more than drone use.
Among the drone manufacturers lobbying the legislation were Honeywell International and Raytheon.
The report noted: “The FAA is coming under increasing pressure from industry and its allies in Congress, as well as law enforcement agencies, to open the skies to UAVs. Aerospace companies are looking beyond Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan and see a potentially lucrative domestic market for their technology, and supporters argue that the United States must loosen restrictions on the technology so that the nation can be a leader in the industry.”
Expect to see heightened lobbying as the FAA puts together a rules package.
Drone manufacturers have formed a trade group, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which last year spent $280,000 on lobbying in Washington. Expenditures for the first quarter of 2012 total $60,000.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the Electronic Frontier Foundation recently obtained records showing how many public and private entities have applied for authorization to fly drones domestically. The records also included a list of manufacturers seeking permission to test-fly drones.
Here’s a list of those companies and their 2011 lobby expenditures:
|Drone manufacturer||2011 lobby|
|Aurora Flight Sciences Corp.||$190,000|
|Bell Helicopter Textron (1)||$4,600,000|
|Blackwater Airships LLC (2)||< $5,000|
|Cyber Defense Systems Inc.||$0|
|Defense Technologies Inc.||$0|
|L-3 BAI Aerosystems (3)||$3,705,000|
|(1) Shows figure for parent company, Textron Inc.|
|(2) Shows figure for parent company, Academi|
|(3) Shows figure for parent company, L-3 Communications|
|Sources: First Street, Center for Responsive Politics, Electronic Frontier Foundation|