The drone industry isn't flying under the radar anymore.
As industry leaders, government and military officials gather this week in Northern Virginia, the "unmanned vehicle systems" sector faces mounting questions on all sides, including privacy concerns, hostile state and local laws, and constitutional battles over the roles of drones in the modern U.S. military arsenal.
Even Virginia, the state hosting the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International convention, is considering laws to impose a two-year moratorium on drone use.
With the flurry of activity, lawmakers and the general public are beginning to get a firmer grasp on what drones can do and the greater roles they will play in everyday American life, analysts say.
The conversation about drones is no longer being had solely in Washington, but in town halls across the country, said Amie Stepanovich, an attorney with the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
"The industry has really been controlling these conversations. We're hoping that won't continue," she said Monday. "The industry has definitely taken off in terms of publicity. People are becoming more aware of the industry and how active they are in the U.S."
Amid all the questions, criticism and proposed laws, this week's conference in McLean is a chance for the sector to try to turn attention away from the civil-liberties concerns associated with their products and toward the benefits they offer to law enforcement, fire departments and other governmental entities.
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"They have the capability to help police and firefighters, who put themselves into harm's way every day in order to protect the communities they serve, do their job safely and efficiently," association Chairman Peter Bale said in a recent letter to Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, arguing against the pending anti-drone legislation.
"And in times of tight budgets, [drones] can provide the same capability of a manned helicopter at a fraction of the operational cost, saving taxpayer dollars," Mr. Bale said.
Law enforcement officials in Florida have made similar arguments against drone legislation introduced by state Sen. Joe Negron, a Republican. While Mr. Negron's bill includes exemptions -- such as allowing drones to be used in hostage situations or to find a missing child -- he, like other critics, said there must be tight controls on the drones.
"Drones are fine for killing terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but they shouldn't be used to monitor the activities of law-abiding Floridians," he said last week, according to The Palm Beach Post.
Mr. Negron's bill is similar to proposals in Montana, Washington and elsewhere, though they differ in scope. Federal lawmakers also are taking aim at drones and their place in American foreign policy.
A number of senators have floated the idea of a "drone assassination court," a judge or panel of judges that would sign off on U.S. military drone strikes around the globe.
Yet another piece of legislation will be unveiled this week in the House, a bipartisan bill laying out how and for what purposes drones can be used and requiring that all judges and attorneys general provide a detailed list of all drone warrants issued and the legal rationale for granting them. The Preserving American Privacy Act will be introduced by Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, California Democrat, and will include other drone rules and limits.
Domestic use of drones, whether it be by governmental agencies or civilians, will become an increasingly important part of the drone industry's future. That's especially true in light of Monday's revelation that, for the first time, the Pentagon is considering scaling back the buildup of drones it has overseen in recent years.
The move is to save money and to adapt to changing security threats, The Associated Press reported.
Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration is gearing up to allow commercial and personal drone use beginning in 2015, setting the stage for a shift from drones being solely the domain of the military and police departments to playing roles in agriculture, journalism and other walks of life.
This week's Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference, which runs from Tuesday through Thursday, will feature speeches from members of Congress, high-ranking military officers and leaders at the Federal Aviation Administration.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
Ben Wolfgang is a national reporter for The Washington Times. Before coming to the Times, he spent four years as a political reporter in Pennsylvania. His focus is on education and science policy. Ben lives in southeast D.C. and has played guitar in several bands while still in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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