Don’t ground unmanned aircraft in state

April 3, 2014 

Chris Carson, right, and Lion El Aton of Firefight Films have been using a video camera attached to the bottom of a drone quadcopter to film the glacier and an ice cave at Mendenhall Lake in Juneau, Alaska.

MICHAEL PENN/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

From Amazon to Facebook to Domino’s Pizza, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have been drawing considerable attention lately. But as the nation moves forward with innovative ways to potentially utilize this technology, Washington has taken a step in the opposite direction, passing House Bill 2789, which limits the purchase and use of UAS by state and local agencies.

This bill, which is now awaiting Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature, should be vetoed.

As president of the Cascade Chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the world’s largest nonprofit organization devoted exclusively to advancing unmanned systems, I believe this proposed legislation will not only hinder the ability of UAS to assist police, firefighters and other first responders in keeping our communities safe, but also jeopardize current and future manufacturing jobs for Washington in the rapidly growing unmanned systems sector.

UAS hold tremendous potential for the state of Washington and our nation as a whole. From advancing scientific research and responding to natural disasters to helping fight wildfires, unmanned aircraft have the capacity to revolutionize industries and, most importantly, help us do dangerous or difficult tasks safely and efficiently.

Washington is poised to become one of the hubs of UAS technology. According to an economic impact study from AUVSI, the industry is projected to create more than 6,700 jobs in the state in the first three years following the integration of UAS into the National Airspace System. This would lead to a $1.3 billion in economic impact, which could grow to more than $7.8 billion by 2025.

According to the report, Washington is also the state that would see the second-greatest gains in job creation and additional revenue as the manufacturing of UAS increases.

In addition to limiting the economic impact of this technology, this bill could also prevent Washington from recognizing the many societal benefits to UAS. The technology is already demonstrating its value across the nation, from monitoring disease in agricultural fields to collecting data during hurricanes.

As the integration of UAS proceeds, the uses of the technology will expand to include assisting search-and-rescue operations, surveying oil and gas infrastructure and advancing scientific research. In fact, last year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) used UAS right here in Washington to study local wildlife and tsunami debris off the shore of the North Olympic Peninsula. UAS provided a cost-effective and unobtrusive way to survey bird populations, which are otherwise difficult to access because of the rugged environment and harsh weather conditions.

The bill put forth by the House unnecessarily limits this technology, requiring any regulatory or law enforcement agency to get the Legislature’s approval to purchase and use UAS. Even worse, no agency can use UAS under this law until their governing body comes up with standards for them. State and local governments in Washington have no plans in the near future to use UAS, but this highly restrictive bill threatens their ability to someday take advantage of this critical emerging technology.

Meanwhile, state standards for the use of UAS are unnecessary since the Federal Aviation Administration is currently working on standards and the regulatory framework for UAS. The standards would apply to UAS operations not only in Washington state, but across the nation.

Certainly there should be a reasonable conversation about the application of any new technology, but AUVSI is concerned by any proposed legislation that might prematurely and unnecessarily limit the tremendous societal and economic benefits the technology will bring. Striking the right balance between protecting our rights and advancing innovation benefits everyone.

The industry and public safety agencies have been vocal in their support for the safe, nonintrusive use of the technology, and it would be unfortunate for Washington to lose out on the economic and societal benefits because of this legislation. Rather than prohibit the use of this groundbreaking and potentially life-saving technology, we should work together to protect people’s rights, while also advancing this technology and creating jobs.

Eric Folkestad of Camas, Clark County, is president of the Cascade Chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International.

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