As the global drone boom unfolds in the next few years, one key lawmaker warns we could eventually see science-fiction style warfare in American skies.
"I can envision drone fights in the air, drones cracking into each other," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, during a Senate subcommittee hearing on the Federal Aviation Administration's fiscal 2014 budget.
Although Mrs. Feinstein isn't the only one with such concerns, FAA officials have on several occasions reassured the public that it would be illegal to operate an armed drone in U.S. airspace. It is illegal for civilians to arm the helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft they own or operate, though every military in the world already does this.
But with technology racing ahead, Mrs. Feinstein fears drone pilots could disregard the law and use the crafts to deliver weapons — and that the federal government will be ill-equipped to stop them.
"It doesn't take much to put munitions on [a drone], once you've got the know-how," she said.
Weapons aren't the most pressing issue facing the FAA when it comes to drones. The agency has been charged with the daunting task of integrating the craft into the national airspace no later than Sept. 30, 2015.
Maintaining safe skies, free from drones crashing into traditional aircraft or into each other, is the FAA's chief goal and responsibility.
FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation Thursday that the public has yet to fully grasp what drones are capable of, or the unique challenges they pose for federal regulators and lawmakers.
"It's fair to say the public is only now coming to grips with what the full implications [of drone integration] are," he said. "I have stressed to industry associations the importance of them being very transparent. ... We as a country need to look at this technology very carefully."
Mr. Huerta also admitted that the FAA itself is still learning about drones. The agency has established a test-site program, where the craft will be studied extensively to see how they respond at different altitudes, in varying climates and in other conditions.
The data gathered at the six locations across the country, which have yet to be chosen, will be central to new regulations and safety standards governing drones.
But local and state governments, along with a growing number of federal lawmakers, are tackling another key concern of domestic drone expansion — the effect on personal privacy.
More than 30 states have considered bills to limit what the crafts can do, where they can fly and what kinds of data they can collect.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, earlier this week signed a bill outlining how law enforcement agencies can use drones, limiting them to "imminent danger to life" or "serious damage to property" only.
The FAA has released its own privacy protocol to be implemented at its test sites, but the agency lacks the authority to address drones' snooping ability on a larger scale.
"They are real spy machines. Is that something we want in commercial service in the United States of America?" Mrs. Feinstein said. "That's a very real question with which the industry has to grapple."
Last year, the industry's leading trade group, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, adopted a voluntary "code of conduct" calling on all drone operators to respect individuals' privacy and not use the craft for illegal purposes.
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