Las Vegas convention puts drones on big stage

Debate still rages on about privacy, safety

Las Vegas this week will be transformed into the drone capital of the world, as hundreds of unmanned vehicle companies descend on Sin City for the industry’s largest trade show.

The annual Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International convention, with more than 500 drone and related exhibits on display and a wide range of speakers including the acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration, comes as the national debate on drones and their safety and personal privacy implications kicks into overdrive.

A flurry of activity on Capitol Hill in recent weeks has drawn even more attention to the drone industry, which can begin offering its products for commercial and private use in 2015. The FAA has estimated that by 2020 there could be as many as 30,000 drones flying in U.S. airspace, and a variety of sectors — ranging from the news industry to family farmers — are expected to buy them by the thousands.

The looming drone boom has caused alarm among Fourth Amendment advocates and others who fear the craft — quieter, cheaper and more versatile than traditional planes or helicopters — will not only intrude upon citizens’ privacy, but also could pose air-safety problems or potentially be used by terrorists and criminals. Those concerns have generated numerous pieces of legislation to set strict limits on the industry.

Last week, Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, became the latest lawmaker to propose a bill designed to rein in unmanned vehicles. His Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act of 2012 would require the secretary of transportation to conduct a study of drones’ impact on privacy, and also would require the FAA to collect specific information on what kind of data drones will collect and how that data will be used before granting licenses.

“Currently, there are no privacy protections or guidelines and no way for the public to know who is flying drones, where and why,” he said last week. “The time to implement privacy protections is now. This [draft legislation] will help ensure that pilotless aircraft isn’t privacy-less aircraft and the strongest safeguards are put into place for Americans.”

Other lawmakers, including Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican, and Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, have introduced similar bills.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International has voiced support for privacy measures, and earlier this summer released its first-ever “code of conduct” policy, a voluntary rule book meant to assure the public that drone companies and operators will not use the crafts for nefarious purposes.

“Like with any emerging technology, it’s important that a commitment to safety, professionalism and respect is part of the foundation of its use,” association President and CEO Michael Toscano said in a statement last month.

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