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Risk and reward with civilian drones


 It’s a good bet that in the not-so-distant future aerial drones will be part of Americans’ everyday lives, performing countless useful functions.

And it’s also a good bet that the Dayton-Springfield region could land some of that new industry because of its aerospace installations, research and development prowess, and manufacturing expertise.

A far cry from the killing machines whose missiles incinerate terrorists, these generally small, unmanned aircraft will help farmers more precisely apply water and pesticides to crops, saving money and reducing environmental impacts. They’ll help police departments find missing people, reconstruct traffic accidents and act as lookouts for SWAT teams.

Real estate agents will use them to film videos of properties and surrounding neighborhoods. States will use them to inspect bridges, roads and dams. Oil companies will use them to monitor pipelines, while power companies use them to monitor transmission lines.

With military budgets shrinking, drone makers have been counting on the civilian market to spur the industry’s growth. But success on the battlefield may contain the seeds of trouble for the more benign uses of drones at home. The civilian unmanned aircraft industry worries that it will be grounded before it can really take off because of fear among the public that the technology will be misused. Also problematic is a delay in the issuance of government safety regulations that are needed before drones can gain broad access to U.S. skies.

Some companies that make drones or supply support equipment and services say the uncertainty has caused them to put U.S. expansion plans on hold, and they are looking overseas for new markets.

“Our lack of success in educating the public about unmanned aircraft is coming back to bite us,” said Robert Fitzgerald, CEO of The BOSH Group of Newport News, Va., which provides support services to drone users.

In southwest Ohio, drones are seen as a potential economic rainmaker. There’s the Wilmington Air Park, in need of reuse and offering 1,900 acres and nearly 3 million square feet of industrial, office and hangar space. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base manages the Air Force’s drone acquisition and development. Military UAVs are controlled remotely overseas at the Springfield Air National Guard Base. The area is home to many defense contractors and university research that contributes to the industry.

A drone industry study released in March said unmanned aerial systems industry will have an “enormous economic and job creation” impact in the United States, creating at least 2,700 jobs and a $2.1 billion impact in Ohio by 2025.

The Federal Aviation Administration is calling for proposals to select six sites nationwide to test the integration of unmanned aerial vehicles into the national air space by 2015. The Dayton Development Coalition is submitting Ohio’s proposal. The FAA is expected to choose the winners by the end of the year. The state has teamed with Indiana to make its case. The proposal would have the UAVs flown out of the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport and the Wilmington Air Park.

Since January, drone-related legislation has been introduced in more than 30 states. Many of the bills are focused on preventing police from using drones for broad public surveillance, as well as targeting individuals for surveillance without sufficient grounds to believe they were involved in crimes.

Law enforcement is expected to be one of the bigger initial markets for civilian drones.

In Virginia, the state General Assembly passed a bill that would place a two-year moratorium on the use of drones by state and local law enforcement. The measure is supported by groups as varied as the American Civil Liberties Union on the left and the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation on the right.

Gov. Bob McDonnell is proposing amendments that would retain the broad ban on spy drones but allow specific exemptions when lives are in danger, such as for search-and rescue operations.

Seattle abandoned its drone program after community protests in February. The city’s police department had purchased two drones through a federal grant without consulting the city council.

In some states economic concerns have trumped public unease. In Oklahoma, an anti-drone bill was shelved at the request of Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, who was concerned it might hinder growth of the state’s drone industry. .

A bill that would have limited the ability of state and local governments to use drones died in the Washington legislature. The measure was opposed by The Boeing Co., which employs more than 80,000 workers in the state and which has a subsidiary, Insitu, that’s a leading military drone manufacturer.

Although the Supreme Court has not dealt directly with drones, it has OK’d aerial surveillance without warrants in drug cases in which officers in a plane or helicopter spotted marijuana plants growing on a suspect’s property. But in a case involving the use of ground-based equipment, the court said police generally need a warrant before using a thermal imaging device to detect hot spots in a home that might indicate that marijuana plants are being grown there.

In Congress, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., co-chairman of the House’s privacy caucus, has introduced a bill that prohibits the Federal Aviation Administration from issuing drone licenses unless the applicant provides a statement explaining who will operate the drone, where it will be flown, what kind of data will be collected, how the data will be used, whether the information will be sold to third parties and the period for which the information will be retained.

Privacy advocates acknowledge the many good uses of drones. In Mesa County, Colo., for example, an annual landfill survey using manned aircraft cost about $10,000. The county recently performed the same survey using a drone for about $200.

But drones’ virtues can also make them dangerous, they say. Their low cost and ease of use may encourage police and others to conduct the kind of continuous or intrusive surveillance that might otherwise be impractical. Drones can be equipped with high-powered cameras and listening devices, and infrared cameras that can see people in the dark.

Civilian drone use is limited to government agencies and public universities that have received a few hundred permits from the FAA. A law passed by Congress last year requires the FAA to open U.S. skies to widespread drone flights by 2015, but the agency is behind schedule and it’s doubtful it will meet that deadline.

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Staff Writer Steve Bennish and Associated Press writer Michael Felberbaum in Richmond, Va., contributed to this report.


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