Drone Manufacturers Confident Domestic Industry Will Grow

Gathering in Washington, D.C., drone manufacturers say they are optimistic about their business, despite a downturn in defense spending. The unmanned vehicle industry is hopeful the domestic market will open up. But they first must address privacy concerns exacerbated by the NSA spying scandal.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene, with Renee Montagne.

When you think of drones, the image is often of the military targeted terrorists abroad, and we'll hear more about that in a moment. But drones could also have a big future in our own skies. At a drone industry conference this week here in Washington, D.C., manufacturers were bullish about commercial drone potential in the United States.

But as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, there's still a lot of uncertainty about how new privacy laws will affect the ability to operate drones.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Most of the booths at the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International meeting are staffed by people with lots of engineering degrees. But others feature leggy blondes gesturing toward sleek, shiny unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAV's.

As this industry grows up, it's trying to stretch its appeal beyond the traditional military market. A company called Scion has developed a remotely piloted helicopter for the Naval Research Lab. But Scion's Sandy Mangold says there are lots of civilian uses.

SANDY MANGOLD: Border patrol, things like delivering packages with it, where you could fly out, instead of having a UPS truck to go out 150 miles to a remote ranch, you could fly it out in a vehicle like this and drop the package off.

ABRAMSON: The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq helped spark the boom in the UAV business. And now that the end is in sight in Afghanistan, companies know they must make the leap to domestic uses.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey, so we're DJI. This morning, we want to give you guys to look at our S800 hexacopter system.

ABRAMSON: At an indoor demonstration area, DJI demonstrates its S800 hexacopter.

(SOUNDBITE OF S800 HEXACOPTER ENGINE)

ABRAMSON: As the copter's six blades whir, the ungainly looking craft levitates and dances around inside a big cage, as spectators watch. Lots of companies are making smaller copters like this one - too small to carry people, but big enough to carry a film camera. But if you have fantasies about having burritos delivered by air, you'll have a long wait.

Tim Finegan of the Teal Group says the FAA won't allow any commercial use of unmanned vehicles until 2015 at the very earliest.

TIM FINEGAN: Probably next year, it's going to open somewhat for small, unmanned systems under, for example, 55 pounds. But it's going to be a long process before there's a complete opening of airspace.

ABRAMSON: Still, many companies are betting on a brilliant future for unmanned craft. But that domestic market might never come into being if the industry can't address concerns about civil liberties. During a panel session, the ACLU's Jay Stanley said his organization wants clear surveillance rules before products fly over public spaces.

JAY STANLEY: We don't want to live in an American where, from the minute you walk out your front door, until you get home at night, you have to wonder if there's some invisible eye in the sky that's tracking your every move.

ABRAMSON: Those concerns have led at least seven states to pass laws that restrict the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. And a bill introduced in Congress would require, among other things, that law enforcement get a warrant before collecting information on people in public spaces.

Professor Greg McNeal of Pepperdine University told drone manufacturers these approaches could drastically limit the usefulness of unmanned vehicles in the future.

GREG MCNEAL: And as you're flying, looking for the lost hiker, you don't have a warrant, because you're just looking for a lost hiker. You witness someone in the woods being stabbed to death. That evidence of the person being stabbed to death would have to be suppressed, because it was gathered without a warrant.

ABRAMSON: McNeal says that would be a shame. He says the industry should be explaining to people that unmanned systems can be more accountable than manned systems, because all the information gathered can be easily logged. He urged the industry to head off restrictive laws by developing its own technological solutions to privacy questions first.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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