As protesters outside railed against drones’ potential to be used for spying and other evils, industry leaders and government officials at this week’s unmanned vehicles convention focused on writing the right laws and regulations to balance the craft’s vast economic potential with protecting personal privacy.
Walking that tightrope has proved a constant struggle for the sector and its leading trade group, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), which is hosting its yearly gathering at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the District.
While a sprawling showroom floor showcases how drones can be used for firefighting, search-and-rescue missions, military operations and other positive applications, the lion’s share of attention — and the source of concern, bordering on paranoia, among the American public — is centered on whether the technology will result in constant government surveillance.
Even those eager to see a drone industry create jobs and revolutionize the aviation world are harboring reservations.
“I’m not eager, as a privacy advocate, when that same technology allows anyone — whether it’s a government official, a private contractor, a potential burglar or even a peeping Tom — to hover around my house and persistently surveil what’s going on on my property and invade my privacy, and to do so without even the hassle of trespassing on my land or climbing a tree,” said Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who is chairman of the Aerospace States Association, a group of state officials focused on advancing the U.S. aviation and aerospace industry.
The organization has taken the lead on drafting recommendations for drone legislation, which states could start using in the coming months and years.
While Mr. Treadwell sounded a concerned yet conciliatory note inside, the mood outside the convention center was different.
About 15 protesters, led by Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin, chanted anti-drone slogans and cast the craft as nothing but killing machines and the tools of a Big Brother-style government bent on snooping on its citizens.
“We see the killing and the spying coming together beautifully, and this lobby group, AUVSI, they want more spying in the United States. It’s not enough what the [federal government] is already doing. Why don’t you turn us into a 24/7 surveillance society? The American people don’t want that,” she said.
Earlier Tuesday, a Code Pink member was escorted from the building after interrupting a keynote speech from Lt. Gen. James O. Barclay III, deputy chief of staff of the Army G-8, after saying that AUVSI has the “blood of Yemeni children” on its hands.
Her comments, as she was led away by security, referred to recent drone strikes in Yemen by the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA.
But those protests, and the efforts of many others who staunchly oppose increased drone use at home and abroad, have done little to slow an exploding industry that by all accounts is poised to create many thousands of jobs and pump billions of dollars into the U.S. economy.
“We know that [drones] will bring better capabilities to our force, and that is the future of our Army. We’ve got to incorporate this,” Mr. Barclay said after the protester was led out of the room.
Increased use by the military is only one part of the drone sector’s expected growth. As the Federal Aviation Administration works to integrate the craft into U.S. airspace by 2015, drones increasingly will be used by farmers, oil and gas companies, first responders, media companies and an almost limitless number of other industries.
As unmanned vehicles — in the air, on land and in water — become more prevalent in American society, more than 40 states have adopted or are considering bills to limit what they can do and what types of data they can collect.
Mr. Treadwell and his association used the backdrop of the convention this week to release long-awaited recommendations for lawmakers drafting such bills.
Among other things, Mr. Treadwell said, states should consider requiring warrants for government surveillance of individuals or their property; prohibiting the “repurposing” of data collected by drones, an effort to keep police departments or other entities from simply collecting mass information on millions of Americans, keeping it and using it however they wish indefinitely.
He also raised the prospect that states write laws to keep drones from being armed in commercial airspace, restrictions that already apply specifically to fixed-wing planes and helicopters alongside the military’s use of those aircraft for bombing and strafing.
Those and other measures could help calm concerned Americans who otherwise could stand in the way of an advancing sector, Mr. Treadwell said.
“If you don’t stand up for privacy, there will be no [drone] industry. But in the end, we want both,” he said.
AUVSI continues to back efforts to implement smart drone privacy rules, but says any new laws or regulations should be broad in nature and not specifically target unmanned vehicles.
“Our approach is that you have to deal with this in a technology-neutral way,” said Ben Gielow, AUVSI’s general counsel and government relations manager. “You have to deal with the data issue.”
If laws focus only on drones and other existing products, he said, they could become obsolete as technology advances.