Much of the public debate about unmanned aircraft has focused on armed drones that patrol the skies in countries like Pakistan and Yemen, hunting for militants. In a recent Senate filibuster, Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul crystallized anxiety about the lethal technology being turned on Americans on U.S. soil.
But there is also growing interest in the potential domestic applications of unarmed drones. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 directed the Federal Aviation Administration to start creating a system for regulating and licensing unmanned aircraft, a process that will entail launching six special test sites. At a Tuesday hearing, lawmakers talked about how to ensure one of those sites is in California.
"Simply put, unmanned aircraft systems are the next big thing in the aerospace industry," said Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance. "We need to make sure that California continues to be a national and global leader in aerospace," he added. He said groups in 37 states have been working on applications.
There are currently two California-based groups submitting bids to the FAA: the CalUVA Coalition in Southern California and the Southern California Unmanned Systems Alliance in Ventura County. While Muratsuchi repeatedly emphasized not taking sides, lawmakers pressed representatives from both groups on why they did not merge their applications, prompting some testy exchanges.
The six new test sites will function as controlled incubators for new drone technology. The FAA will approve an operator for each site and then collect testing data to help develop rules that fold drones into the existing regulatory framework for U.S. airspace.
Currently, public agencies can apply through the Federal Aviation Administration to get permission to fly drones. Private companies and citizens can operate pilot-less aircraft only for research and development or to hold demonstration; a Los Angeles area real estate agent who used a drone to take footage of houses and subsequently posted it online, according to FAA spokesman Ian Gregor, offers an example of prohibited private drone use.
Federal authorization to fly drones has gone to entities that include federal agencies like the U.S. Border and Customs Patrol, universities, and a handful of small towns. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection explored using unmanned vehicles to track wildfires but is currently experimenting with mounting a camera on a manned aircraft called an "air attack ship," according to CalFIRE spokesperson Julie Hutchinson.
PHOTO CREDIT: Seattle Police officer Reuben Omelanchuk is at the controls of the department's new, small radio-controlled Draganflyer X6 drone with a camera attached, in Seattle, in April 2012. Associated Press / Alan Berner.