Editorial: Pursue drone research while also addressing privacy concerns

Published Feb 19, 2013 at 04:00AM

Yes, the drone industry could be a tremendous economic boon to Central Oregon. And yes, there are privacy concerns that deserve attention. Those two facts are not in conflict. They both need to be pursued, but one should not hamper the other.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced last week that it will choose six sites across the nation for testing drones. The agency expects that more than 10,000 of the unmanned aircraft will be in the nation’s skies by 2017. Although military deployments will remain important, other uses are expected to expand dramatically, including spotting forest fires, helping search and rescue operations, doing geographical surveys, assisting local law enforcement, helping farmers evaluate irrigation needs and letting power companies check transmission lines, among many others.

Central Oregon is well-positioned for this intense competition, in which more than 30 states are expected to apply. Oregon has vast open airspace, geographic and climatic diversity, as well as existing companies involved in this kind of research. Oregon State University is heavily involved.

The research sites will study how to prevent drones from colliding with planes or causing damage on the ground. Because operators are on the ground, they can’t see impending collisions, and there’s concern that the communication from the controller could be broken. Safeguards must be designed and tested.

The economic benefits to the six winners will be significant. A 2011 study estimated Central Oregon would gain nearly 500 jobs and $28 million in payroll. The region’s losses from the departure of Cessna would be history.

Proponents are concerned, though, that privacy issues could derail the area’s drone testing application. Oregon Senate Bill 71 seeks to restrict the use of drones for police work. Privacy advocates worry that drones would allow authorities to track and monitor anyone’s movements.

That’s a healthy, indeed essential, conversation that needs to be pursued vigorously. The FAA is seeking to address those concerns by posting a draft privacy policy on its website that would require the six sites to follow federal and state law and publicize their own privacy policies.

Domestic drone use is coming, whether or not it gets tested and developed here. Let’s focus on solving the practical and privacy challenges of drones, and reaping the economic benefits.