03/12/2013 10:10 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2013

Drone Industry Event Highlights Effort To Rebrand Planes For Commercial Use

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. drone industry next week will hold its second Washington-area conference in as many months in an ongoing campaign by makers of unmanned spy planes to shed their notorious association with extrajudicial assassinations and embrace profitable civilian uses.

The March 21 day-long conference is hosted by the drone industry's major trade group, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Billed as "A Washington Conversation on Unmanned Systems," organizers said the conference goal is to "highlight [non-military] unmanned vehicle uses and the impact of this emerging market."

Conference sessions will be largely devoted to civilian uses for drones, including the use of drones for "humanitarian assistance and stability operations" in war-torn regions, and drone deployment for "environmental monitoring."

The civilian drone market is growing fast, explained Jay McConville, who heads the DC chapter of Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. "Many new uses for unmanned systems are on the near horizon [and] it's vital that industry, academia, and government work together to maximize the benefit" of new technologies, he said.

As the drone industry tries to sell its softer side, it's difficult not to notice that many featured conference speakers have built their careers on the weapons side of the drone business.

McConville, the chapter president, oversees business development for Unmanned Integrated Systems at defense giant Lockheed Martin. Speaker David Bither is a business development specialist for the defense industry, and was formerly a partner at Mav6, a firm offering unconventional warfare solutions. Doug Brooks, scheduled to speak in the afternoon, leads a trade group for companies that provide private security forces and ad hoc special operations in unstable regions. Other speakers have specialties that include video technology and jet propulsion, all for the war-fighting drone industry.

Drone trade groups like Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimated that with a boost from non-military products and government tax breaks, the unmanned vehicle industry may reach annual sales of more than $100 billion over the next decade.

What these sunny long-term forecasts fail to mention, however, is that in the short term, drone manufacturers face a daunting set of political and PR challenges. These range from individual questions about privacy to high-level concerns about how weaponized drones are used in war.

On the public side, the Federal Aviation Administration is working to define drone regulations and whether rules should apply to the government's potential ability to watch citizens. The FAA initially planned to develop a framework for these rules by 2015, but a series of setbacks and public concerns have put the deadline in doubt.

On Capitol Hill Tuesday, President Barack Obama faced tough questions in a closed-door meeting with Democratic senators -- a rare instance of senators challenging a president of the same party. The senators' drone questions followed last week's nearly 13-hour filibuster, staged by Republican Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) to block a vote on Obama's pick for director of Central Intelligence until the administration answered specific questions about the drone program.

"There is fear amongst the general public about what these systems are capable of," Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International spokeswoman Gretchen West acknowledged in an interview with HuffPost's Preston Maddock in February. But West said that fear is misplaced, because the industry's actual plans, "don't agree with current public thinking."



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