POLITICS
02/20/2013 12:31 pm ET

Drone Industry Concerned About Its Public Image

WASHINGTON -- As the debate over drone warfare rages on, the drone industry is worried it's getting a bad name.

"There is fear amongst the general public about what these systems are capable of," said Gretchen West, a spokesperson for the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a drone advocacy organization. "Industry doesn't agree with current public thinking."

Fears about drones have been reignited in recent weeks by new information about the Obama administration's use of drones to kill al Qaeda suspects abroad, including American citizens.

But industry insiders like West argue that, in the future, drones will be more commonly used for non-lethal, non-military purposes, in fields such as agriculture, media coverage, oil and gas pipeline monitoring and mining. Indeed, industry insiders even shy away from the commonly used term "drones," preferring to refer to them as "unmanned aerial systems."

“The public perception of this technology is being shaped by 1 percent of its actual use,” said Peter Singer, director of the Brookings Institution’s 21st Century Defense Initiative and speaker at a convention last week organized by West's group.

The convention's purpose was to examine the potential use of drones in American airspace. Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration has a ban on commercial use of drones, but that is tentatively set to be lifted in September 2015.

While the industry waits for the government's prohibition to end, it will use the time to make sure that "there is correct public perception of these systems and greater understanding of the great benefits of the technology," West said.

This may be easier said than done, as any drone industry public relations campaign faces growing concern over the privacy and safety of Americans when these drones start flying overhead.

Speaking at the conference last week, Jim Williams, head of the FAA's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office, tried to alleviate worries that armed drones would soon be circling in the sky.

"We currently have rules in the books that deal with releasing anything from an aircraft, period. Those rules are in place and that would prohibit weapons from being installed on a civil aircraft," Williams said.

Still, the potential use of even unarmed drones for domestic law enforcement is meeting firm resistance in Congress and state legislatures across America. A bipartisan bill introduced in Congress last week by Reps. Ted Poe (R-Texas) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) would force law enforcement officials to seek warrants before using drones to surveil in criminal cases.

"Any form of snooping or spying, surveillance or eavesdropping goes against the rights that are outlined in the Constitution," Poe said in a speech on the House floor.

Similar bills restricting law enforcement's use of drones have been passed by or introduced in 10 state legislatures across the country.

"I think the concern of legislatures is understandable and it is a good idea for them to put privacy protections in place," Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Huffington Post. "Before law enforcement fly drones they should have a reason to believe that doing so will turn up evidence of a specific crime."

On Feb. 7, the FAA released an updated list of 81 public entities that have already applied for permission to fly drones in U.S. airspace. FAA's drone applicant list includes 17 police and sheriff departments, which hope to use drones for surveillance and crowd control. The law enforcement offices seeking the FAA's permission include those in Kings County, Wash., Miami-Dade, Fla., and Arlington, Texas.

A Monmouth University poll released June 12, 2012 found that 67 percent of respondents supported the use of drones to apprehend criminals, but 64 percent of respondents were at least "somewhat concerned" about their privacy if law enforcement were allowed to fly drones.

West told The Huffington Post that the drone industry "certainly respects the rights of privacy of American citizens," but there is already a "framework in place through the Fourth Amendment and a long history of case law that protects their privacy rights."

Still, West said the domestic drone industry is confident Americans would soon come to understand the benefits of using drones to prevent crime. "Small unmanned aircraft are just another tool of law enforcement to be able to do their jobs, essentially saving lives."

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