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Domestic use of drones threatens safety, privacy

America's already crowded skies could get more crowded as drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, gain access to the national airspace. With combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, the U.S. military wants to bring its drones home. But this technology has serious implications for aviation safety and domestic privacy.

Military drones have captured headlines for killing members of al-Qaida and the Taliban, as well as for their surveillance capabilities. Yet, in the rush to war, the Pentagon fielded vehicles such as the Predator before their development programs were complete and without obtaining air worthiness certificates that the Federal Aviation Administration requires for piloted aircraft.

"The technical capabilities of the UAVs have been tested in a military context, but safety and technical issues need to be addressed if the program is to be expanded domestically," concluded a 2010 report by the Congressional Research Service. "Chief among these issues is the FAA's concerns about the [national airspace] and whether UAVs can be safely incorporated into the nation's crowded skies."

According to the report, UAVs suffer accident rates multiple times higher than manned aircraft. Despite safety concerns, Congress and the Obama administration continue to push for the domestic use of UAVs. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 established a deadline of 2015 to develop and implement operational and certification requirements for the use of UAVs in the national airspace.

The Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, founded by Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, argues that integrating UAVs into the nation's airspace will improve America's border defenses, public safety and emergency response systems. McKeon's district includes Northrop Grumman, maker of the Global Hawk drone.

Aerospace companies are salivating at the prospect of a domestic UAV market. According to estimates, the U.S. commercial drone market is worth hundreds of millions of dollars once the FAA approves their use, with the agency projecting that 30,000 drones could be in the nation's skies by 2020.

However, privacy advocates say permitting UAVs to operate in the national airspace will lead to widespread use of drones for domestic surveillance by government and law enforcement agencies and even private companies across the country. With their powerful surveillance capabilities, these highly intrusive drones represent a potential threat to American civil liberties.

Before the FAA unleashes these potentially dangerous and intrusive aircraft, the agency needs to perform due diligence. As the FAA works to define UAV airworthiness requirements, Congress must soberly consider safety regulations for drones as well as privacy safeguards for American citizens on the ground.

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Greg Slabodkin of Kenmore writes about military technology.