Jobs trump privacy in debate over drones

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Washington was among the states that submitted proposals to develop research and testing facilities for unmanned aircraft. Its proposed system would encompass several Washington locations, with the Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake as its hub, according to Bart Phillips, Clark County-based vice president of economic development for Innovate Washington. The public-private economic development group would operate the test facilities. Phillips expects makers of unmanned aircraft to use the facilities to train businesses purchasing drones, an industry expected to add nearly 7,000 jobs and generate $1.3 billion in revenue statewide by 2017.

In the balancing act over state concerns about drone surveillance and the opportunity for drone-related jobs, economic interests appear to be winning out.

Lured by the possibility of winning one of six Federal Aviation Administration test sites to integrate drones into the national airspace and the aerospace jobs that come with it, at least 16 states presented their credentials to the drone industry and the federal government at the recent Association for Unmanned Aerial Systems International, or AUVSI, conference in Washington, D.C.

The jobs created around an FAA test site could be a boon for states -- Utah, for instance, estimates a test site would bring at least 23,000 new jobs. Nationally, at least 70,000 jobs will be created in the first three years of drone integration into the national airspace, according to AUVSI.

Tougher privacy laws were seen as a nonstarter for states wanting to attract drone jobs and win a test site.

"What kind of message would that send to the selection committee for the FAA site, that we wanted to limit drone use and then also wanted the test site?" said North Dakota Republican Sen. Tony Grindberg, explaining how the state Legislature defeated a drone privacy bill this year.

At least six states passed laws this year to restrict drone use by law enforcement and set limits on how information collected from a drone, such as photos or videos, can be used. But more states are doing all they can to appeal to the emerging industry.

Oklahoma's Gov. Mary Fallin has a cabinet-level secretary dedicated to attracting drone companies to the state. New Mexico has already secured an FAA test site, given its long history of military testing. In promotional materials, Utah touts that it is "one of the few states with unified executive and legislative support for UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) testing."

Even in Virginia, where Tea Party proponents and civil libertarians worked together to pass a two-year moratorium on drone use by anyone other than the military, the economic temptation of aerospace jobs and an FAA test site convinced the Legislature and the governor to all but gut the moratorium in a special session.

"Not only would future job prospects dim, but current businesses and those they employ would be at risk," Peter Bale, chairman of the AUVSI, warned in a letter to Gov. Bob McDonnell. "More than 50 companies that manufacture UAVs have a footprint in Virginia. A moratorium would create an unfriendly environment for these companies, which as a result might look to take their business, as well as jobs, elsewhere."

In response, McDonnell added exemptions to the moratorium for researchers and companies to test drones, so long as they are not armed or used for surveillance. Virginia and New Jersey are teaming up to apply for a joint drone test site, competing against 22 other states in vying for one of the spots.