Drones are used to target America’s enemy combatants on foreign soil, to roll across Mars in search of signs of life, to scale mountains or plunge to ocean depths to find and eliminate invasive species and to retrieve information for government, news or detective agencies.
They can be nano-sized and purchased for under $50 or be as large as a 737 airliner and cost millions of dollars.
As technology progresses, the applications for drone technology is as endless as it is controversial, and some 42 states including Hawaii have legislation pending to regulate drone use.
If some key Hawaii lawmakers, military leaders and scientists get their way, Hawaii may well become one of six states selected by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to join a pilot project that integrates the use of drones and aircraft.
Hawaii is competing with 50 other bids from 37 states and government officials here hope to team up with Alaska and Oregon to test drones in all climates and terrains. An announcement is expected by the federal agency that regulates American skies this December.
Meanwhile, across the country, people continue to debate safety, liability, ethical and privacy issues surrounding drones.
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DRONES OVER HAWAIIAN SKIES
The U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division’s 2nd Stryker Brigade and its 3rd Infantry Brigade based at Schofield Barracks and Wheeler Air Force Base on Oahu incorporate about 120 drones into their surveillance and reconnaissance operations. The Hawaii Air Guard has another 24 drones that fly over some of Hawaii’s key military bases.
At a July 25 panel at the Plaza Club in Honolulu hosted by the Hawaii Venture Capital Association and Think Tech Hawaii, the state’s Adjunct General, Darryll Wong–who also heads the Hawaii Air Guard–emphasized how strictly drones are regulated here, even those being used by the military for intelligence gathering.
The Hawaii Air Guard, which has 12 Raven drones that are hand-launched and another dozen Shadow drones that are car-sized and launched off a rail, must apply a year ahead with the Hawaii National Guard to get approval to use the drones.
While the military can use drones to spot enemy combatants and keep soldiers safe, or assist the government in assessing damage after natural disasters or eliminating invasive species, they also have endless scientific and commercial uses, Wong told the audience of about 200.
But Hawaii is currently stuck in a holding pattern. Technology has outpaced bureaucracy, Wong said, and he emphasized that the people who make laws and policy need to pass legislation that will catch up to technology.
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HAWAII LEGISLATURE FAILS TO TACKLE ISSUE
Many residents are skeptical of drones flying over Hawaiian skies because they’ve been used as a lethal weapon in war zones overseas. In addition, since drones can hold facial recognition software, thermal imaging cameras, microphones and license plate readers, there are privacy concerns from residents who don’t want drones spying on them or tracking their whereabouts.
Senate Minority Leader Sam Slom, R-Hawaii Kai-Diamond Head, introduced Senate Bill 783 during the 2013 legislative session. Senators Russell Ruderman, D-Puna-Kau, and Malama Solomon, D-Hilo-Kona, co-signed it.
The bill proposed to regulate drones, limit how the data that is gathered can be used and requires reporting by the military agencies annually as to the type of data collected and its disposition. But after being assigned to three committees including the transportation, public safety and judiciary committees, the bill failed to even get a hearing.
“Technically this bill, which is still alive in the 2014 legislative session that begins in mid-January, creates a new chapter for unmanned aerial vehicles,” said Slom. “I am not into conspiracy theories or anything else, but because drones are proliferating and there are potentials for wrongdoing, there should be limitations and reporting on their use.”
Slom said private commercial users have operated some form of drones for many years for information gathering such as real estate companies gathering external property information and photographs. The senators who supported the bill wanted a full discussion on the widespread and increasing use of government drones, both nationally and locally.
“Hawaii prides itself on privacy and regulatory protections, and legislation regulating drone use should meet constitutional requirements,” Slom said. “The government’s primary responsibility is security, however security should not come at the expense of personal liberty or absence of constitutional limitations. As we have seen during this year, there has been a proliferation of government data gathering through many sources including drones and they have been the object of several controversial revelations including those of former Hawaii resident Edward Snowden.”
Avi Soifer, a constitutional scholar and dean of the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii-Manoa who also spoke at the Think Tech event, said privacy is a major concern and an ongoing part of the debate. While there is no reference to privacy in the U.S. Constitution, Soifer noted that people cherish their privacy and even get upset by cameras mounted on traffic lights.
While some lawmakers are concerned about privacy and limiting drone activity, others want drones incorporated into Hawaii’s airspace.
Senate Public Safety and Military Affairs Chair Will Espero–who recently announced his intention to run for the 1st Congressional District seat in 2014 that’s currently held by Democrat Colleen Hanabusa–introduced a resolution in 2012 encouraging Hawaii to become a test site for unmanned aerial vehicles and drones. Espero said the commercial use of drones will help diversify and bring millions of dollars into Hawaii’s economy and create more high paying jobs.
There are many benefits to drones, Espero said, including using them for search and rescue, emergency preparedness, fishing, fighting invasive species, atmospheric research and more. The biggest issue regarding the use of drones is safety, especially for air traffic and within populated areas, Espero said. Other resolutions that need to be reached include who the operators will be, what the rules will be and who will be in charge of enforcing them.
Rep. Gene Ward, R-Hawaii Kai, said it would be “big time for Hawaii” if the FAA selects the 50th state as a test site for drones.
Ward also believes commercial drone usage would bring millions of dollars into the Hawaii economy, especially if companies were offered incentivized tax credits and didn’t have to struggle through Hawaii’s notorious government bureaucracy that sometimes slows projects for years or stops them altogether.
“Hawaii does not want to change anything,” Ward said, “we rely on our good looks. But we also need to rely on our intelligence. Drones could be a game changer for us.”
Ted Ralston, an ex-aerospace industry executive who served on the July 25 Think Tech panel with Ward, agrees Hawaii’s economy could get a boost from a commercial drone industry and investors who believe there is a path to profit.
One important aspect is creating analytical software that can turn the data collected in to something useable, Ralston said. Ralston also stressed the importance of universities training the state’s work force and noted the supercomputer on Maui is a great asset.
The industry needs to open a dialog with government, Ralston said, including the FAA, the agency he said that is two years late with issuing their drone use guidelines.
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DOT DRONE HELD HOSTAGE
The FAA strictly regulates the use of drones in Hawaii airspace, so much so that the Department of Transportation has been unable to get approval to fly a drone it purchased in 2010 for $75,000.
The state Department wanted to fly the drone over Honolulu Harbor to protect the harbor from potential terrorist activity, but the FAA denied the request because of heavy air traffic in the area. The state did not check with the FAA about flying the drone until it received inquiries from the news website Hawaii Reporter in 2010 and again in January 2011.
The FAA then told the state the drone could not be deployed in the crowded airspace adjacent to Honolulu International Airport and Hickam Air Force Base. The drone had already been built, so the state had to accept it.
Right now, the ill-planned purchase sits in the DOT Harbor headquarters as state officials ponder whether to sell the aging drone or continue to wait for FAA approval that may never come.
Lt. Gen. Jeffrey A. Remington (Ret.), a three-star U.S. Air Force general who now works as an independent aviation consultant, wants to see the FAA take swift action to regulate drone use so they can proliferate here.
Remington, who sat in the audience at the Think Tech event, said briefly after the panel spoke that drones are not the problem. He said unmanned vehicles are reliable, and will do exactly what they are programmed to do, flying as they are directed and landing within inches of where they are told to land.
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Hawaii consistent is rated lowest in the nation among states in terms of business and investment climate. That’s in part why so many individuals and organizations now are strongly lobbying for the local manufacture and use of drones in Hawaii as an economic stimulus.
There is no question technology has outstripped government oversight nationally and locally. So the issue is whether a new economic engine be developed and allowed to proliferate while taking into consideration individual civil liberty concerns and typical bureaucracy by government or will this just be another example of a debate that drones on.
Malia Zimmerman is the editor of HawaiiReporter.com, an online news journal founded in 2002.