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U.S. commercial drone industry struggles to take off

Jaikumar Vijayan | April 21, 2014
The U.S. commercial drone industry is still struggling to get off the ground more than two years after President Obama signed into law a bill that permits the civilian use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) over the country's airspace.

Aerospace research company Teal Group estimates that sales of military and civilian drones will total over $89 billion in the next 10 years.

Drone use in the U.S., meanwhile, continues to be bogged down by misperceptions and overblown fears over privacy and security, he said.

Many of those opposed to commercial UAVs tend to think of them as military drones rather than the relatively small and lightweight vehicles that they are.

As a result, lawmakers want to impose new search warrant requirements on drone use even though no such requirements apply to the use of other aviation assets by law enforcement, Gielow said. Other proposed laws seek to restrict drone operators from flying over private property of capturing images of people and private property without their explicit permission despite current statutes that already prohibit such actions.

"This is a big data issue. It has nothing to do with the platform," that is used to collect the data, Gielow said. The same privacy and security restrictions that apply to the use of data collected by other means apply to data collected by drones, he said.

The mere fact that drones enable a new type of data collection does not mean that data collected by such aircraft is exempt from existing data security and privacy laws. "Things like Peeping Tom laws and stalking and harassment laws are just as applicable to unmanned aircraft as they are to manned aircraft," he said.

By proposing and adopting new anti-drone laws, legislators are trying to curtail drone use even before people have really begun using the technology in the U.S., Giewlow said. "It is like trying to restrict the Internet or the telephone," before giving the technologies a chance to be actually used widely.

The FAA's continued inability to come up with rules for commercial drone use is another problem, he added. The lack of rules makes it harder for the FAA to claim authority over civilian drone use in the U.S., according to Gielow.

Earlier this year for instance, the FAA attempted to fine an individual $10,000 for using a drone to capture promotional video. The FAA claimed the individual had used the drone in a dangerous and reckless manner.

However, an administrative judge from the National Transportation Safety Board, struck down the fine on appeal noting that the FAA could not enforce rules for civilian drones that don't exist.

"Clearly, we have a lot more work to do," Gielow said. Many of the laws being passed or proposed are based on very little real information, he claimed. "Education is going to be key, but it is tough to educate people about drones if they are not being used," he said.


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