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Unmanned civilian aircraft offer new uses, jobs for Oregon

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013


03.21.13 Blog UAVUnmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), often called “drones” in their military capacity, have jumped to the forefront of public consciousness because Congress has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to let these vehicles fly around the nation’s skies within a few years.

Some citizens, meanwhile, have raised an alarm at the prospect UAVs would be used in the same way in the U.S. as they have been overseas, for spying on people and attacking anyone the government considers a threat.

It’s good concerns are being raised before the vehicles are in wide use. Yet even a moment’s pause shows that the dangers are being exaggerated and opportunities for useful applications are being ignored. Like every other technology, benign civilian use will soon dwarf the original military use.

First, some context.

The military uses drones to spy on and attack the enemy, because that’s the military’s job description. The military uses every technology to carry out or support those tasks. Manned aircraft, satellites, GPS, the Internet, microchips — even the iPhone’s “Siri”— were all pioneered by the military to do bad things to people on the other side.

Civilian uses differ radically because civilian needs differ radically. The most extreme contrast? The Internet was designed by the military to wage nuclear war. Yet it’s now the largest commercial marketplace in history, transacting $2.5 trillion in business annually.

The same transition from military to civilian purposes has begun for UAVs, and their uses will radically differ too. The number one use of UAVs in the world today is not military but agriculture. Applications include fighting fires, doing search and rescue, helping farmers determine the best locations for planting or detecting crop diseases, conducting land and water surveys, monitoring wildlife, and inspecting railroads and power lines. In a decade, all naturalists will have a small UAV in their toolkit for science studies.

UAVs represent an emerging industry, and Oregon is uniquely suited to become a national UAV leader. It has diverse geography and climate in which applications can be developed and tested — away from cities. It has a small but vibrant and growing UAV industry. Oregon State, a major research university, drawing on its expertise in sensors, robotics, and natural sciences, has stepped in to champion UAVs.

OSU is working with private entities and other institutions to develop innovative research projects and is part of a regional coalition in a bid for a federal UAV test site. After a rigorous review, the state has also recommended the civilian UAV effort for a major innovation grant, which is included in the governor’s new budget.

Conservative projections indicate that reasonable industry growth with UAVs will lead to at least 1,400 new jobs, $120 million in payroll, and $225 million in overall economic impact for Oregon in coming years. Rural areas will particularly benefit.

Certainly, these new vehicles — and other robotic craft operating on the land or sea —need to adhere to the same laws regarding privacy as any other technology. Any sensible interpretation of existing law would already include them, as the issue is not the vehicle carrying “spy” equipment but the use of that equipment.

Law enforcement should need search warrants for UAV-carried technology if warrants are required for other technical surveillance. It is the surveillance that matters, not whether the technology is located in a car, a phone, a briefcase, a UAV, or carried on a person.

But it makes no sense to forbid photography, say, from a public place from a UAV when it is perfectly legal for photos to be taken from a public place by people using other kinds of vehicles, such as a manned aircraft or a car, or by a person with a camera.

Similarly, UAVs should not be used to intrude on a neighbor’s privacy or act in a way that will endanger anyone. (The latter is already illegal under federal air regulations.) If a person is acting as a “peeping Tom,” then it does not matter whether the person is using his or her eyes, binoculars, a camera attached to a broom, or a UAV. Again, the law should focus on the behavior, not on the physical device.

Oregon has a once-in-a-century opportunity to be part of a new and fast-growing industry. UAVs offer the promise of hundreds of useful civilian applications to the public and thousands of jobs to individuals.

The potential, which is akin to being in Silicon Valley at the dawn of the digital era, is not limited to flying machines. The same components that can move a vehicle can also operate mechanical and manufacturing systems with lower cost and greater efficiency. Autonomous robotics is in its infancy. It is up to Oregon to help grow it to maturity.

Collins Hemingway is a business and marketing professional, author, and pilot based in Bend. He is a volunteer working to develop a civilian UAV industry in Oregon.

Editor's Note: Oregon Business accepts opinion articles on topics relevant to the state’s business community. See Op-Ed submission guidelines here.


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