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Testing Programs for Drones Could Be Economic Opportunities for Tribes

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Drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) have been big news lately, and promise to stay in the headlines for years to come. “Within 15 years, we'll look back and say this is the moment where it began,” says Jeff Anspach, Bois Forte Band of Chippewa Indians. The “it” he’s referring to is a revolution in how Americans live. Anspach heads up the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation's effort to become one of the Federal Aviation Administration's six test sites that will help put drones into national air space by 2015.

A year ago, President Obama signed into law the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, a bill that requires the FAA to integrate unmanned aircraft systems into national air space. In February of this year, the agency began vetting applications for test sites. The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs is preparing their application, according to Anspach, CEO of Warm Springs' economic development arm, Warm Springs Ventures.

Anspach says that when the tribe first applied, he was told that since the tribes were not a public entity, they were not eligible, but they could partner with other entities, which they have done—they are now collaborating with the states of Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii, Oregon State University and the University of Alaska.

For the most part, drones have been in the news over the past couple of years because they are a key part of the Obama Administration's war on terror in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. Drones have taken out al-Qaeda leadership, including American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2010. The New American Foundation estimates that as many as 3,200 people have been killed by armed drones in Pakistan since 2004, between 293 and 471 of them non-combatants, including children.

Other military uses of drones include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, communications, battle management, electronic warfare and missile defense. Non-military federal agencies using drones include the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection, which has nine or 10 Predator drones it employs “to detect, interdict, and prevent acts of terrorism and the unlawful movement of people, illegal drugs, and other contraband toward or across U.S. borders,” according to the department. NASA and NOAA operate drones for scientific research and environmental monitoring. Universities and law enforcement agencies are among the other public entities authorized to fly drones in U.S. air space. Private entities, such as drone manufacturers, which include defense industry heavy-hitters Honeywell International, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, test drones. The worldwide drone market could grow to $90 billion in the next decade, the FAA estimates.

A few of the other possible non-military uses of drones include bridge and road inspections; mapping; traffic jam or accident alerts; farming, fire, hurricane studies; flood forecasting and monitoring; oil and gas exploration; fish and wildlife management; land management; glacier monitoring; atmospheric monitoring and weather forecasting; search and rescue operations; law enforcement; and radiation measurements. The FAA forecasts that 30,000 drones will be flying over U.S. soil by 2030.

That’s why it is critical researchers perfect “sense and avoid” technology that will prevent crashes between drones and other aircraft. Geography is one reason Warm Springs Ventures, along with it partners, has begun the application process to be designated a test-site. “Warm Springs could provide exactly that perfect area for helping with integrating UAVs into commercial air space because the main technology that needs testing deals with 'sense and avoid,'” says Anspach. “The onus is on the unmanned vehicle to avoid general aviation and commercial aircraft.” The Warm Springs reservation covers an area of 1,000 square miles, 97 percent of it controlled by the tribes. Six hundred square miles is forested, and the five population centers are concentrated in the eastern part of the reservation, Anspach explains.

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In addition to testing sense and avoid technology, the reservation would be a perfect location for testing other kinds of unmanned vehicles, such as the rovers that were sent to Mars, and for testing whatever technology ends up being developed to address privacy concerns, according to Anspach.

Threats to privacy are very much on the minds of both citizens and legislators. Drones range in size from those with the wingspan of a 737 to those that are smaller than 6 inches and weigh less than a pound. Micro UAVs are in development, with the goal of producing insect-sized UAVs that could be deployed in swarms. The small size of drones, their relatively low cost and the development of highly sophisticated sensors mean that they could eventually not only monitor who is on the street—which they can do now—but they could theoretically be flown inside of schools, hospitals, government buildings, commercial enterprises and even private residences. They could be deployed to do things most people would agree provide public benefits, such a search and rescue operations, finding a missing child (The FBI said that a drone was used to monitor a hostage standoff in Alabama that involved a five-year-old.), or perhaps providing medical information to doctors while patients stayed at home, a service that could be particularly useful in remote areas.

But if a UAV can take your temperature, what can it find out about other activities that a person would want to keep out of the public record, which could include anything from what lullaby you are singing to your infant to criminal activities?

So far, more than two-dozen states, including Arizona, Texas, Nebraska, Oregon, Missouri, Florida, North Dakota, Virginia and California are considering legislation to regulate how police use drones, as are other municipalities. On Feb. 4, Charlottesville, Va., became the first U.S. city to pass an anti-drone measure, a move that many other cities have on the drawing board.

On the federal level, protection of U.S. citizens' Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seize has been of sufficient concern to put people as far apart politically as Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., in the same fox hole. Paul went so far as to filibuster the Senate's confirmation of John Brennan, who has been deeply involved in the implementation of the president's drone policy, as head of the CIA until Paul received assurances from Attorney General Eric Holder that the president did not have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil.

Both Markey and Paul last year introduced legislation specifying drone privacy measures, and both have said they intend to reintroduce their legislation this year. Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., Ted Poe, R-Texas, and Austin Scott, R-Georgia, have already introduced legislation this year that would limit the kinds of surveillance that could be conducted using drones.

Anspach sees the FAA's testing program for drones, whether to develop sense and avoid technology or to protect privacy rights or for any of the dozens of other tasks drones will be asked to perform, as an opportunity for the Warm Springs tribes, whose geographical location “makes economic development tricky.” As UAVs segue from the military arena into a commercial space, testing programs “could be a real economic driver for other tribes” as well, says Anspach, especially rural tribes with large land bases.