Under an increasingly bright spotlight, the global drone industry is gathering in Washington this week for its annual convention.
It's an event that will both highlight the cutting-edge technology being developed in the sector while also putting front-and-center the vehicles that critics say will erode Americans' Fourth Amendment and privacy rights.
The conference, which officially opened Monday but doesn't begin in earnest until Tuesday, includes an impressive showroom of products, ranging from airplane-size drones used by the U.S. military to small unmanned aircraft that literally can fit in the palm of one's hand. The gathering, held at D.C.'s Walter E. Washington Convention Center and lasting through Thursday, also will feature speeches from industry leaders and high-ranking U.S. officials. Rear Adm. Mathias W. Winter, executive officer of the U.S. Navy's Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons program, and Deputy Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari are among those scheduled to address the convention.
The conference comes as the worldwide market for drone technology continues to explode. A new report by the Fairfax-based Teal Group, an aerospace and defense analysis company, shows that the worldwide unmanned aerial vehicle market will total $89 billion over the next decade. The figure includes both research-and-development dollars spent and the procurement of drones by military forces and other entities.
"The [drone] market is evolving. It is becoming an increasingly international market as it grows," said Philip Finnegan, director of corporate analysis at the Teal Group and an author of the study.
But amid that growth comes concerns over the potential risks that drones pose to personal privacy.
Groups opposed to drone technology are expected to protest outside the convention center throughout the week. Code Pink, for example, is set to demonstrate at noon on Tuesday in opposition to both the spying capabilities of drones and their use against terrorist targets across the globe.
The impact of drones on personal privacy also will be addressed inside the convention center on Tuesday. The Aerospace States Association — a coalition of state leaders advancing the aviation and aerospace industries — will unveil its drone-policy recommendations, meant to guide legislation at the state level.
More than 30 states have adopted or are considering bills to limit what drones can do, where they can fly and what types of data they can collect. Tuesday's recommendations, to be put forward by Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, chairman of the states association, will provide a blueprint for those state-led efforts and, in theory, should provide some uniformity in drone policy from state to state.
Conventiongoers also will pay close attention to the remarks given by Mr. Porcari. The Federal Aviation Administration — an arm of the Transportation Department — has been charged with integrating commercial drones into the U.S. airspace by 2015 but has begun to fall behind schedule.
With billions of dollars at stake, industry leaders want to see the FAA meet its congressionally mandated 2015 deadline.
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