Most of Colorado’s congressional delegation and Gov. John Hickenlooper have signed a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration asking the agency to turn the state into a testing ground for unmanned drones — even while acknowledging that the public remains uneasy about how they might be used by both the government and private individuals.
Democratic Sen. Mark Udall is leading the charge, touting the state’s varied terrain, its robust aerospace industry and an existing unmanned aircraft program at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
“Colorado has a unique mix of qualifications that makes it ideal for this designation and we urge the FAA to approve our state’s application,” the letter reads. The FAA is considering designating six areas in the United States for drone research.
In a speech at the National Press Club Wednesday, Udall was careful not to use the word “drone” too heavily, opting instead for the industry-preferred “unmanned aerial system,” or UAS.
“The public is well aware of the military applications of unmanned systems, for better or for worse,” he said. “But UASes have begun to demonstrate their potential in any number of other functions. They will certainly reshape the way we do things from search and rescue operations to natural disaster assessment to precision agricultural and resource management.”
“We need to integrate UASes into the American psyche in a way that isn’t threatening or scary,” he continued, noting that the word “drone” carries a stigma because most people associate them with “Hellfire missiles and the headline-grabbing work our government is doing overseas.”
They’re also associated with the concerns from civil liberties groups, including in Colorado, who see the potential for their misuse. The Mesa County Sheriff’s Office in Western Colorado has begun using drones for search and rescue.
In a recent National Geographic article highlighting Mesa County’s drone, Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union encapsulated many people’s concerns about the growing use of the technology.
He worried that it would begin with “mostly unobjectionable” uses, such as supporting police chases or raids, but then creep into spying on Americans under the justification that it’s necessary for national security.
The scenario becomes more worrisome when considering armed drones.
Last year, a Texas sheriff proposed arming one of his department’s drones with weapons that can fire tear gas and rubber bullets, but during a demonstration, the $300,000 drone crashed into the SWAT team’s armored car.
CU-Boulder is one of just 63 agencies and organizations already authorized by the FAA to test fly its own fleet of unmanned aircraft as part of a decade-old public-private partnership.
Although its aircraft are used by the university to study the weather, CU’s research is funded in part by arms manufacturers and defense contractors like Raytheon, SAIC and Lockheed, as well as by NASA, the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which commissions research on behalf of the Department of Defense.
One drone developed by CU researchers to chase storms has been used in U.S. Navy experiments to launch hard-to-track, sensor-carrying glider-drones the size of small birds that can land within 15 feet of their programmed target.
Applications like that tend to make the public nervous about how they will be used — whether by government agencies or private owners — especially as they get cheaper and easier to use.
“While recognizing the potential for unmanned flight systems that lower costs, reduce risk and allow access to environments that are currently inaccessible, we must also acknowledge the potential for misuse,” Udall said. “Our laws need to keep pace with this new technology.”
The right kind of laws protecting privacy and trespassing would help keep people from thinking about “a sky full of drones watching their every move,” he said.
In addition to Udall and Hickenlooper, Democrats Sen. Michael Bennett and Rep. Diana DeGette, along with Republican congressmen Doug Lamborn, Ed Perlmutter, Mike Coffman and Scott Tipton, signed the letter to the FAA.
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