FAA drone testing could soon fly in Florida, other US sites

Drone aircraft, best known for their role in hunting and destroying terrorist hide-outs in Afghanistan, may soon be coming to the skies near you as depicted in this illustration.


By DAN TRACY | The Orlando Sentinel, Fla. | Published: June 4, 2012

Drones that have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of suspected terrorists in the tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan soon may be patrolling the skies over Florida and the rest of the United States.

But rather than launching missiles, domestically flown drones could fill a variety of peaceful roles, from aerial photography and land surveying to law-enforcement duties such as monitoring red-light running and speeding.

They also could be used for clandestine surveillance, triggering privacy concerns from civil-rights experts who worry about indiscriminate snooping on law-abiding citizens, not just criminal suspects.

What ultimately happens and under what restrictions are up for debate right now.

The Federal Aviation Administration, at the behest of Congress and President Barack Obama, is devising rules that by 2015 should determine how drones can safely share airspace with the nearly 340,000 commercial and private planes aloft every day nationwide.

Some of the testing could be done in Florida. The FAA could pick the six testing sites by December.

"We have lots to offer," said Jim Kuzma, chief operating officer for Space Florida, a Cape Canaveral-based space-development agency courting the FAA on the state's behalf.

Kuzma estimates as many as 50 companies in Florida are involved in some way with manufacturing drones. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach is one of the few institutions in the country that offers a degree in unmanned systems.

Kuzma said drone testing in Florida could create lots of jobs, although he could not offer a solid number. Just as importantly, testing in Florida could help the state expand its stake in the industry, he said.

Bloomberg News estimates the drone industry is worth nearly $6 billion and could almost double in value by 2021 because of its expected expansion into the civilian economy.

Drones, more properly known as unmanned-aircraft systems (UAS), come in all shapes and sizes, from as small as a hummingbird to ones with wingspans as wide as a Boeing 737. They can cost from thousands to millions of dollars each.

The armed Predator drones operating in the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan are somewhat larger than a two-seat, single-propeller Cessna. Predators carry a price tag of about $4 million apiece.

U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, whose transportation committee passed the FAA law, said the testing will look at questions such as how high and the safe distances needed between a drone and a plane.

But the FAA will not decide how the drones are used and under what circumstances, he said. Those questions, he said, are for lawmakers and judges to decide.

Already, he said, drones are in the air in much of the country with exemptions for experimentation. They mostly being used by law enforcement, especially along the border with Mexico.

In Central Florida, Orlando police do not use drones, a spokesman said, and is not looking into the possibility. An Orange County Sheriff's Office spokesman said his office might employ them if they are approved.

The American Civil Liberties Union fears drones could invade the privacy rights of people. The unmanned aircraft can operate for hours, transmit reams of data and be virtually impossible to detect.

"What is the criteria [for use]? Who gets to make the decision and based on what?" asked Derek Newton, an ACLU spokesman in Miami.

He suggested a thorough review of drones before they are let loose in the skies.

'This might be a good place to slow down and examine these tools," Newton said.

Alex Bronstein-Moffly, an analyst with First Street, which tracks lobbying efforts in Washington, said drones represent a trifecta of influence peddling because laws will be drafted that affect jobs and large sums of government and private money.

He predicted "the real lobbying" will occur not at FAA, but likely in the judiciary and other congressional oversight committees, where rules over who gets to use drones and under what circumstances will be written.

Kuzma said he is confident privacy worries can be overcome.

"This is very powerful," Kuzma said. "We want Florida to be at the leading edge of this."

dltracy@tribune.com or 407-420-5444


©2012 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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