5 Things You May Not Know About Drone Use On U.S. Soil

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In the 1950s, General Atomics emerged as the nuclear research arm of General Dynamics, one of the world’s largest government contractors. At that time, General Atomics was tasked with “harnessing the power of nuclear technologies for the benefit of mankind.” (Or so their slogan said.) That unit eventually spun out of General Dynamics working on nuclear as well as the earliest versions of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones.

To this day General Atomics remains one of the largest purveyors of drones but more and more, other providers are coming on the market with drones that range from military grade to small hobbyist offerings. At the beginning of this year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that it had chosen six research and test sites in the US to craft standards around domestic drone use. That announcement was big for drone activists — both for and against – but it is also reflective of a broader reality domestic drones are here to stay. Here are 5 things you may not already know about drones in the United States.

Drone Test Sites

The drone test sites chosen by the FAA vary widely and each has a pretty specific remit. 24 states quietly submitted applications to be chosen for this study program, which is not only likely to establish rules of the road for domestic drones, but also the future hubs of the U.S. drone economy. Private drone test sites are also springing up in states that weren’t chosen by the FAA. Drones are poised to be the next big phase for the aircraft industry, and surprisingly not much of the old aircraft economy was included in this first round of test sites.

Sites in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia were all chosen this round. Three sites were universities — University of Alaska, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and Virginia Tech. The universities have by far, the broadest remit in terms of what they will study with drones, and the test sites themselves extend beyond campus borders and into Hawaii, Oregon and New Jersey. These universities will be looking at safety risks, how drones handle different climates, and will work on setting operational standards. The sites in Nevada, New York and North Dakota will focus more on the human factor including operations, pilot credentials and commercial use cases. Rules for air traffic controllers will also be part of the study plan in Nevada.

Rules for piloting, and inspecting drones in the US are still in flux

As you might’ve noted in the paragraphs above much of the work of the new test sites will be to study how drones will fit into an already somewhat crowded U.S. airspace. The vision presented by Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos of ‘Amazon Air’ drone delivery may well be more far off than 2015 or 2016. Analysts place the overall size of the market for drones to be around $98 billion over the next decade. Of that, BI Intelligence places around 12 percent to be allocated to commercial use. That may not seem like a lot, but the lines between commercial and non-commercial use aren’t that clear cut. At an operational level, this means pilots, airports, air traffic controllers, law enforcement and maybe even farmers and scientists will have to be evaluated for piloting drones. How these rules are crafted could have a big impact on that 12 percent.

The FAA plans to phase-in small (under 50 pound) drone flights starting in 2015, drones this small could deliver small packages, and they could also be outfitted with cameras or other surveillance equipment which has already raised a number of privacy concerns. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol already has its own drone fleet including drones that are larger than 50 pounds, and already flies them in the US on border patrol operations. However, they recently grounded their fleet after a drone crash landed off the coast of California, reflecting some of the safety concerns these new test sites will have to study. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also mans its own drone fleet to watch coastal erosion and other environmental activities.

A U.S. Citizen has already been tried and convicted thanks to drones

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has loaned out its drone fleet hundreds of times to law enforcement officers for use on U.S. citizens and not just individuals streaming across the border. Now, we have the first case in the U.S. of a person being captured and convicted with the aid of a drone. North Dakota resident Rodney Brossart was sentenced to three years in prison following an armed standoff with police after he refused to return cattle that wandered over to his land from a neighboring farm. The Border Patrol loaned a drone to North Dakota law enforcement officials who used the aircraft to locate Brossart on his own land and bring him in after terrorizing police. It’s unclear how long the drone was used, whether it gathered evidence of movements, holding on to the cattle or just gave police an eye in the sky but it was used to move in after police arrested five other members of Brossart’s family over the course of the incident.

Your state may already have drone laws up for debate

In a stunning departure from their federal counterparts, state lawmakers are moving quickly to get drone laws on the books. Most of those laws seek to restrict the use of drones by both individuals and law enforcement and some have unique twists. California for example is considering a measure before the general assembly that deals directly with drone-aided paparazzi concerns. Others are looking at establishing no-fly zones over residential areas, or areas in which individuals may have a reasonable expectation of privacy. While privacy activists generally support these laws, they have the potential to turn U.S. airspace into a muddy patchwork of flight restrictions without a consistent standard.

This ain’t your momma’s lobby

The pro-drone lobby may not be made up of the players you would immediately expect. It’s not just defense hawks and neo-conservatives who often fall down on the side of more surveillance. Sure, the usual suspects like law enforcement, homeland security and the FBI want domestic drones.

Yet, there is a fair amount of liberal support for limited use of domestic drones as well, the EPA, farmers and some environmental scientists want to use drones with cameras to monitor coastal erosion, climate change, crops, and potential hazards. Not only that, but a small and rarely heard of interest group – model airplane hobbyists are pro-drone. Beer delivery by drone is also gathering steam with ice fishers, despite the FAA grounding beer-dropping drones over the weekend.

Interestingly, a fair amount of Republican support is lining up with the anti-drone lobby citing privacy concerns. The FBI has said it considers warrantless drone surveillance to be constitutional. But city, state and federal officials who have been faced with drones peeking in their windows come down against it pretty quickly.

One town – Deer Trail, Colorado is considering a measure that would give civilians license to shoot drones out of the sky garnering support from pro-privacy, and pro-gun residents, and a judge is looking it over before it will go to a vote, but a vote is expected. The level of state legislative action on this issue is poised to drive the narrative as federal officials have yet to act. The NACDL’s Domestic Drone Information Center has a handy state-by-state list of drone bills. Watch out overhead.

Bailey McCann covers government, hedge funds and private equity. She is a financial author and the founder of CivSource a media outlet focused on state and local government. She can be reached at bailey[at]civsourceonline[dot]com.

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