Don’t padlock future of civilian drone industry

Don’t padlock future of civilian drone industry

22 February 2013

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USA —  It is late summer, not too many years from now. A major fire has broken out in the parched mountains of Central Oregon, the kind of fire that burns thousands of acres and endangers many lives.

Fire watchers have deployed an unmanned aerial vehicle (or UAV, the civilian version of a “drone”). This aircraft, scanning farther than ground observers can see, picks up the fire the minute it flares.

The UAV provides robust communications for all responders and real-time video to guide ground crews as they establish lines around the fire. It alerts firefighters when a sudden change in wind sends the blaze their way and helps air tankers make accurate drops through the smoke and heat.

Oregon UAVs are also routinely locating lost hikers and skiers, injured climbers and mountain bikers, and stranded fishermen and whitewater enthusiasts. UAVs not only find lost people faster and at far lower cost than ground teams, but they also drop food, water and first-aid supplies to victims.

Flying lower and slower than manned aircraft, UAVs reduce costs to farmers and limit harm to the environment by being far more precise in the application of fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides. UAVs have also replaced planes for routine livestock monitoring.

For biologists, naturalists and other scientists, UAVs are becoming an indispensable tool. Studies of invasive weeds, beetle infestations, wildlife and fish populations, water quality — pick your project — now can be done quickly and accurately with world-class sensors developed for an inexpensive aerial platform.

The small robot craft are invaluable in urban areas, too, providing first responders a comprehensive view of structure fires, natural and man-made disasters, and other hazardous situations. After a storm, UAVs locate downed power lines and washed-out roads.

These civilian applications have evolved from the original military use, as have most other modern technologies. Manned aircraft, satellites, GPS, the Internet, microchips — even the iPhone’s “Siri” — were all pioneered by the military. Now, the predominant use is civilian. The same transition has begun for UAVs.

In fact, already in 2013 the No. 1 use of UAVs in the world is not military but agricultural.

Thus, while we need reasonable protection against any misuse — for example, that police need search warrants as they would with any other technology, and that “peeping Tom” rules cover these vehicles — the debate over UAVs should not be in the context of fear and paranoia that restricts sensible, practical use. The debate should be in the context of new and beneficial public uses.

Headlines to the contrary, UAVs will not soon be swarming across the nation’s skies. Civilian UAV use remains highly constrained by a cautious Federal Aviation Administration. UAV flights will be rare for years to come and mostly at test ranges away from population centers. We have time to thoughtfully work through any issues.

We do not need to overreact with well-intentioned but overreaching regulation such as that proposed by Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene. His bill would criminalize everything from hobbyists’ use of model airplanes to filmmaking and routine aerial mapping — and would ground all the civilian missions described here. Burdensome rules will not only kill any growth potential for UAVs but also send the nearly 100 Oregon companies involved in the field fleeing to more rational jurisdictions.

Oregon is uniquely suited to become a national UAV leader. It has a critical mass of industry. It has Oregon State University, a major research institution with expertise in sensors, robotics and natural sciences, leading the effort. It has a variety of geographies and climates for aerial testing. It has numerous public and private needs that would directly gain from UAVs.

Conservative projections put the benefit of reasonable industry growth at 1,400 new jobs, $120 million in payroll, and $225 million in overall economic impact for Oregon over the next seven years, with particular benefit to rural areas.

Recognizing this potential, the state has recommended the UAV effort for a major innovation grant after a rigorous review by business leaders, technologists and legislators, and it is included in Gov. John Kitzhaber’s budget.

The opportunity for Oregon is not that the state may one day benefit from new civilian uses. Rather, it’s that the state has a once-in-a-century opportunity to develop these uses and create a fast-growing new industry.

The moment is akin to being in Detroit in 1900 when things called “autos” were being introduced. It’s like being in Silicon Valley at the dawn of the digital era. Like cars and computers then, UAVs are in their infancy. Current capabilities are nothing compared to the innovation that awaits.

Oregon need only display vision and boldness, while treating with common sense an industry that offers the promise of hundreds of amazing new services to the public and thousands of jobs to individuals.


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