A new report released by a drone industry trade group suggests that using unmanned planes in the United States could create more than 70,000 jobs and $82 billion in economic impact over the next few years. But the head of the organization warns that "privacy distractions" could derail the industry.
The report, released Tuesday by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, suggests that most of the impact will come within the first three years of commercial integration of drones—tentatively set by the Federal Aviation Administration to occur in 2015—and that drones will most commonly be used in agricultural settings and for public safety reasons.
So far, at least 31 states are considering legislation that would limit the use of drones, and a bill in Virginia that would put a two-year moratorium on drone use is waiting to be signed by governor Bob McDonnell. Many of the bills being considered have been championed by civil liberties groups such as the ACLU and would put severe limits on the commercial use of drones in those states. Some proposed bills would require police to get a search warrant before operating a drone.
Most of the proposed bills, according to Michael Toscano, president and CEO of AUVSI, would delay or diminish the positive economic impacts that the drone industry can have in a state.
"This privacy stuff is a distraction," he says. "Look how much energy we're spending on that. It has the ability to affect things going forward."
Jim Williams, who has been tasked with heading the FAA's integration of drones into American airspace, said last month that the "protection of public privacy is very important" and he urged the industry to "get serious" about privacy with "strong industry standards audited by a third party."
The FAA recently put out a request for proposals from states that would like to be the first to test how drones will be integrated into the airspace. In its memorandum of agreement, the FAA says it will consider privacy concerns. Toscano says it's possible the FAA will pass over states that consider limiting drone use.
"Those that have limitations or difficulties with legislation would receive a lower score," he says. "Obviously if you get a test site, it's going to increase the number of jobs doing it. Anyone who wants to get involved in this industry will have to go through the test sites."
Toscano and the AUVSI say that the Fourth Amendment and existing "peeping tom" laws are sufficient to protect personal privacy, but the agency is willing to work with concerned organizations to find some common ground.
"If you're asking if [UAVs] can be misused by people, the answer is yes, but it's just like you can misuse a car," he says. "We believe the laws are adequate. There are privacy issues with any technology that comes forward … but the law stays the same—if you are violate my privacy, whether with a UAV or a manned aircraft or binoculars, you will be held accountable."
That's not how privacy experts see it. Amie Stepanovich, associate litigation counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says that ignoring privacy concerns is "irresponsible."
"If the privacy implications are not addressed at the same time [as safety], we are putting the privacy rights and civil liberties of everyone within the United States at risk," she says. "The current laws are not sufficient to address the privacy threat of a new technology, such as drones. More must be done."