The Virginia General Assembly may have unwittingly done us a favor by attempting to pass a two-year moratorium on Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or drones, as they are more commonly known. Perhaps it will prompt a more reasoned debate about how we can make this breakthrough technology — a multi-billion-dollar market — serve the needs of society without compromising safety and privacy.
When viewed dispassionately, UAS are like any new technology. They can have a multitude of positive uses such as finding lost hikers, studying hurricanes and the spread of plant diseases, and carrying cargo.
Although UAS have been with us for decades in various shapes and sizes, the technology for controlling and operating them has really matured in the last decade. And where we’ve seen them most is in combat operations and strikes on terrorists, a fact that has colored the public’s somewhat limited perception of their utility. Also, press coverage of Senator Rand Paul’s recent filibuster regarding imaginary deadly UAS hovering above our heads has had the effect of confusing the public about what domestic UAS are intended to do and not do.
Despite these perception problems, the reality is UAS will soon join airplanes and helicopters in our skies in large numbers. As mandated by the 2012 Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act, a rulemaking process is now underway to safely integrate UAS into the National Airspace System. It is estimated that as many as 30,000 UAS could be flying domestically in a few years. This is certainly a big potential deal for America’s aerospace industry and the economy, as growing domestic uses will add to an ever increasing worldwide demand for these systems. Indeed, the Teal Group estimates that spending on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles—the flying component of UAS—will almost double over the next decade from current worldwide expenditures of $6.6 billion annually to $11.4 billion.
As part of the FAA’s UAS integration rulemaking process, the administration is seeking to establish six test sites around the country where they can test fly various sized and shaped UAS and collect data on their performance. Virginia is one of several states vying to be selected as a test site, recognizing the potential of those states that are keenly involved in this process to generate many of the 100,000 jobs the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates will be created nationwide by 2025. No doubt, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell saw that being identified as a drone unfriendly state will not help the Commonwealth’s prospects for benefiting from UAS-related jobs creation when he offered amendments to the drone moratorium bill to allow the use of UAS by universities and by law enforcement for the “search or rescue of missing persons or in cases involving imminent danger to citizens.”
The FAA has accepted a responsibility to develop rules for UAS safety and privacy protection, and Congress is certain to hold their feet to the fire on these issues. What’s worrisome about the action of the Virginia General Assembly, and municipalities like Charlottesville, which has passed “anti-drone” legislation, is that natural disasters such as wildfires, severe storms, crop blight and earthquakes do not respect state or local boundaries. And UAS may come in handy some day if, for example, a hurricane or tornado bears down on Charlottesville.
Rather than have a patchwork quilt of regulation across multiple jurisdictions, I believe complex questions and concerns related to regulating UAS are best addressed at the federal level in the context of a national debate on how these systems can be deployed and regulated to ensure the greatest good for the American public.