Facing Opposition From Privacy Advocates, Drone Hawks Fire Back

Maintenence personel check a Predator drone before its surveillance flight near the Mexican border on Mar. 7, 2013 from Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista, Arizona Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images

The domestic drone wars are turning nasty. Last week Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt called for tight regulation of civilian drone technology and an outright ban on “minidrones” he fears could buzz overhead and spy on us in our homes or backyards. Schmidt went further, saying he supports international treaties that would prevent a free-for-all of unmanned aircrafts in the skies above, which could have a potentially huge chilling effect on the “fastest-growing” segment of the global aerospace industry.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the world’s biggest trade group dedicated to promoting commercial and civilian drone usage, is fighting back. In a letter to Schmidt, AUVSI Chief Executive Michael Toscano expresses his concern that such an influential tech industry executive—Schmidt sits on President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and continues to be the face of Google’s lobbying efforts—would prefer to keep this promising technology locked away under the purview of the military rather than open it to the private sector.

To Schmidt, Toscano writes: “I was disappointed to see you advance the misperception that UAS [unmanned aerial vehicles] are only a tool used for military purposes, when in fact, UAS are being used around the world in a growing variety of applications, such as increasing efficiency in agriculture, studying hurricanes, volcanoes and other natural disasters, or responding to emergencies such as the meltdown at the nuclear facility in Fukushima, Japan.” In the letter, Toscano notes that Google itself granted World Wildlife Fund $5 million to use drones to crack down on big game poaching in Africa.

“As is the case with any new technology, there can and should be a reasonable conversation about the impact of the technology,” Toscano continues. “And when it comes to data-collection technology, we would hope that as the chairman of one of the most successful information technology companies in history, you would agree that the real conversation should focus on how data is used, rather than the platform by which it is collected, be it cell phone, the Internet, or unmanned aircraft.”

This is a tense time for the fledgling UAS sector. While drone usage is expected to take off in the next decade, advocates fear government red tape will keep the sector grounded for years to come and could force the U.S. into a game of catch-up on the commercial side. There’s potentially a lot riding on the delay. Analysts at Teal Group estimate that in the next decade, annual global spending on drone technology will top $11.4 billion. The AUVSI’s own research says that once Washington approves commercial drone usage, 70,000 jobs will be created in the first three years.

That sounds a bit hopeful today. Commercial drone usage in the U.S. is not permitted while the Federal Aviation Administration seeks input from aerospace, technology, and privacy advocates, to name a few, on rules for how unmanned aerial vehicles can be used by companies and civilians. Those rules aren’t expected for another two years, and the delay could drag on longer as the privacy debate intensifies.

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