Drones as weapons and drones as spies remain matters of intense debate across the country, but the controversial aircraft are poised to make an impact as something else: economic engines.
Private-sector drones — also called unmanned aerial systems or UAVs — will create more than 70,000 jobs within three years and will pump more than $82 billion into the U.S. economy by 2025, according to a major new study commissioned by the industry's leading trade group.
But the report, authored by aerospace specialist and former George Washington University professor Darryl Jenkins, assumes that the White House and Congress stick to the current schedule and have in place the necessary legal and regulatory frameworks.
Current law calls for full drone integration into U.S. airspace by September 2015, but many key privacy questions surrounding UAVs have yet to be answered. There's also growing doubt that the Federal Aviation Administration can meet the congressionally mandated timetable.
If deadlines are met and drones become commonplace in American skies, some states will be especially big winners.
Virginia, for example, stands to gain nearly 2,500 jobs by 2017. It also could take in $4.4 million in tax revenue and see more than $460 million in overall economic activity by 2017, the report says.
Virginia would gain the eighth-most jobs of any state as a result of drone integration. Maryland isn't far behind, with projections of more than 1,700 new jobs by 2017.
California would be by far the biggest winner in terms of jobs, with more than 12,000 expected. Florida, Texas, New York, Washington, Connecticut, Kansas, Arizona and Pennsylvania are also expected to be benefit greatly from the coming drone economy.
"This is an incredibly exciting time for an industry developing technology that will benefit society, as well as the economy," said Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group that has existed for more than 40 years but has come into the public eye only recently.
Drone expansion "means the creation of quality, high-paying American jobs," Mr. Toscano continued.
But the motivation behind Tuesday's report — arguably the most sweeping look ever at the economic potential of drones — runs deeper than just dollars and cents.
The industry faces an uncertain future in light of growing public paranoia surrounding the craft — paranoia that has only been heightened by the debate over whether the Obama administration would ever consider using a drone to kill an American on U.S. soil.
While the drones that will be employed by U.S. companies or law enforcement agencies are far different than the military-style UAVs equipped with Hellfire missiles, those distinctions aren't always clear.
Tuesday's report not only offered the industry a chance to shine the spotlight on drones' positive uses and economic potential, but also served as an opportunity — or, perhaps a warning — to lawmakers seeking to limit UAVs.
More than 20 states are considering bills to establish strict guidelines for what drones can do. Virginia is mulling a measure that would put a two-year moratorium on all government use of drones. Such a measure would be especially harsh because first-responders such as police and fire departments are expected to be one of the largest markets for UAVs.
Like other growing and thriving sectors of the economy, the drone business likely will set up shop in friendly environments.
"While we project more than 100,000 new jobs by 2025, states that create favorable regulatory and business environments for the industry and the technology will likely siphon jobs away from states that do not," said Mr. Jenkins, the report's lead author who used to head George Washington University's Aviation Institute and also is a former professor at Embry-Riddle University.
On another front, the FAA appears to be in danger of missing the congressionally mandated 2015 deadline for drone integration. The agency just recently began taking applications for its test-site program, where drones will be studied to see how they respond in different climate conditions and at different altitudes.
More than 30 states have expressed interest in the program, but it's unclear when it will be fully established; further delays put the 2015 date in even greater jeopardy.
"Every year that we delay integration, the U.S. will lose more than $10 billion in total economic impact," Mr. Jenkins said.
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