Utah, Nev. await FAA drone testing decision

Saturday , December 28, 2013 - 9:15 PM

Michelle L. Price, Michelle Rindels, The Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Officials in Utah, Nevada and 22 other states are eagerly awaiting the Federal Aviation Administration’s selection of six drone-testing sites for the agency.

States submitting bids are counting on a major economic boost if they become a test site. They also hope it will set them up in the long term as major players in the burgeoning industry.

“We’ve worn out the edge of the seat waiting for it,” said Steve Hill, director of the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

Unmanned aircraft systems, commonly known as drones, have been mainly used by the military, but governments, businesses and even hobbyists are eager to start exploring possible uses for small unmanned aircraft.

The FAA does not allow commercial use of drones, but it’s is working to develop operational guidelines by the end of 2015. The testing sites will help the agency develop those rules and training for operators.

The domestic drones, which often look like radio-controlled model airplanes and helicopters, have been proposed to assist everything from fighting wildfires, mapping future roads and surveying crops.

In addition to aviation experts, the test sites are expected to attract entrepreneurs, so landing one of the coveted six spots will helps states gain a foothold on the industry.

“What you will find is you will have an ecosystem of aviation or aeronautics companies that will develop around these areas,” said Marshall Wright, a business development director with the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

Wright said becoming a test site could also mean tens of millions in tax revenue over the first 10 years or so.

“This is big money,” he said.

Nationally, there are about 100,000 drone-related jobs created every year, and the Utah and Nevada governor’s offices both say if they get just a piece of that, it would be significant boost for the state.

In Utah’s pitch, officials outlined four spots in the northern, west-central and east-central parts of the state for potential testing.

The areas, near Green River, Milford, Delta and Promontory, are relatively rural and do not have heavily trafficked or military airspace, Wright said.

Wright said they also represent a variety of terrain— mountains, flat areas, and even over the Great Salt Lake— that drones would be used in for commercial and civilian purposes.

“We think we have just about everything that you could ask for, outside of jungle terrain,” Wright said.

He said Utah already has 3,000 to 4,000 jobs in the unmanned vehicle industry, either manufacturing drones or related products and systems.

Hill said Nevada’s selling points include a strong military presence, lots of airspace and universities that are developing programs in drone technology.

“Much of Nevada is not all that inhabited,” he said. “Just by that nature, it’s a much safer and more secure environment than one that’s more flown-through.”

Because the unmanned drones can carry cameras and other monitoring equipment, privacy advocates have expressed concerns about them and the need for regulations.

In 2013, more than 40 states introduced legislation to restrict their use. Many of the proposals focused on law enforcement and requirements about a search warrant before using drones.

Marina Lowe, with the ACLU of Utah, said her group is concerned about law enforcement uses that could impact protections against unreasonable search and seizure guaranteed under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.

Utah seems most interested in commercial uses, she said, which the ACLU does not see as potentially problematic.

“The ACLU’s take has always been that if we are going to see drones developed in our state, it’s actually a very pro-business move to make sure that we have some privacy protections in place because it will give people some ease.”

She said in Utah, Fourth Amendment protections are important to residents and legislators, so she expects the state will take steps to protect privacy down the road.

The Libertas Institute, a Utah-based policy group that advocates for individual liberty and privacy, is also monitoring the issue, president Connor Boyack said.

Boyack said their concern is ensuring “the Legislature maintains the ability to enact reasonable safety and privacy guidelines to protect the citizens of Utah as this industry takes off.”

Officials said they’re sensitive to those concerns and they hope that the pending FAA guidelines will help allay fears.

FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said the agency does not have a set date to announce the testing sites, but it will be by the end of the year.

“They’ve played this very close to the vest,” Hill said. “We don’t really have any direct indication, but certainly a lot of people in the industry who have been following this say we have great opportunity. We’re hopeful and anxious to hear.”

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