WHEN U.S. Sen. Rand Paul droned on during a filibuster last month about unmanned aircraft, he tapped a growing unease about drones. But something else is growing in this arena. It's the importance of unmanned aircraft to the Oklahoma economy.
A late February rally at the state Capitol managed to do what few causes can, which is to unite conservative lawmakers and the American Civil Liberties Union. Both are suspicious of drones and their potential for abuse by government operatives. Paul's filibuster was an unsuccessful attempt to block confirmation of CIA Director John Brennan, the first Obama administration official to publicly acknowledge CIA drone attacks against terrorist targets.
Paul's fears, somewhat echoed at the Capitol rally, center on targeting Americans using unmanned aircraft. But drones are chiefly eyed for purposes far less nefarious. And unless the increased use of drones is shot down, unmanned aircraft will be a growth industry.
Drones are big business. Officially known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), their development has focused on uses in the military and spying sectors. Opportunities abound for the commercial use of drones. Gov. Mary Fallin formed the Governor's Unmanned Aerial Systems Council in 2011. State officials have been actively promoting UAVs as an economic development tool. A gathering of UAV enthusiasts took place in Norman last week and included presentations on UAV usage in agriculture, weather monitoring and law enforcement.
“Oklahoma is working to be the nation's center” for UAV development, a State Chamber CEO Briefing noted last week. At the same time, some lawmakers here and in other states want to ground drones. Stephen McKeever, state secretary of science and technology, says Oklahoma is already home to more than a dozen companies serving the UAV industry. State incentive programs covering the aerospace industry also apply to the UAV sector.
Drones have taken on the patina of the genetically modified foods controversy, with emotional arguments pitted against rational responses from those profiting from new developments. Just as there's no consensus on whether modified foods pose a danger to consumers, drones are alternately viewed as Big Brother's invasion of our privacy or a logical step in performing certain tasks in a safer, less labor-intensive way.