Unless privacy laws are strengthened, the American Civil Liberties Union envisions a day when police departments large and small use unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor troubled neighborhoods.
With its decision this month to delay the creation of six national test sites for UAVs, the Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged that the ACLU's fears might not be that far fetched, although an industry spokeswoman largely dismissed the concerns as imagined.
In a letter obtained last week by the Springfield News-Sun to members of Congress, the FAA pointed out the need to first address the privacy issues, along with safety concerns, that come with increasing the number of drones in U.S. airspace.
The Springfield-Dayton region is seeking to become a nationally recognized hub of unmanned aerial vehicle testing, development and manufacturing. Winning one of the six test-site designations is seen as key.
The purpose of the test sites -- which had been scheduled to be selected in December -- is to determine how unmanned aircraft can be safely integrated into traditional manned airspace by 2015 in order to perform an endless array of duties, from border security and relaying telecommunications signals to traffic monitoring and crop dusting.
If picked as one of the test sites, UAVs in this area would likely take off from the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport and the Wilmington Air Park, then fly to military airspace in southern Ohio once used by F-16s from the Springfield Air National Guard Base.
In anticipation, the city of Springfield is spending up to $267,000 to continue operating the base's air traffic control tower, which is no longer used by the Guard, for another year. The city also wants to build a new, $2.3 million hangar complex to attract drone developers.
But unresolved issues abound for unmanned aircraft systems, according to a report released in September by the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office, leading the FAA to indefinitely delay the process of creating test ranges.
"Concerns about national security, privacy and the interference in GPS signals have not been resolved," the GAO report stated.
From a safety standpoint, the report stated, UAVs still are unable to sense and avoid other aircraft and airborne objects, and because nonmilitary GPS signals are unencrypted, the command and control of UAVs is vulnerable.
In addition, the threat to privacy is real, according to Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU.
"Unfortunately," he said, "there is a long history of law enforcement conducting indiscriminate surveillance and wanting to watch people just in case they commit a crime."
"Unless we take action, we're likely to have a problem on our hands," he added.
The privacy issue is looming in the industry, said Gretchen West, executive vice president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an organization that seeks to advance unmanned systems and robotics in defense, civil and commercial sectors.
But there's a lot of sensationalism that's happening with the dialogue, she said.
Whenever the media reports on unmanned aircraft, she said, outlets often show pictures of large Predators or Reapers used by the military and CIA to track and kill suspected militants.
"There's a misunderstanding in the general public we're trying to address," she said.
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