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Maryland hears arguments in favor of allowing drones

Thursday - 4/3/2014, 6:49pm  ET

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Ben Gielow with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) holds a 2 1/2 pound drone that has a camera underneath. (WTOP/Michelle Basch)

WASHINGTON -- Technically, you're not yet allowed to fly a drone and make money from it in the U.S.

The FAA bans them for any commercial use, and some people have privacy concerns.

The drone industry is waiting for the FAA to write rules allowing them to fly safely. Once that happens, the results could be huge for the nation as well as the Mid Atlantic region.

"The unmanned aircraft industry has the potential to create $80 billion in economic impact, and over 100,000 new jobs within the first 10 years after the FAA writes the safety regulations. That's how big this industry is going to be," says Ben Gielow, with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the trade group representing manufacturers of unmanned systems worldwide.

Gielow spoke at a briefing on drones this week before the Maryland General Assembly's Joint Information Technology and Biotechnology Committee.

The briefing was organized by state Sen. Jim Rosapepe, D-Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, who co-chairs the committee.

Gielow predicts drones will be big for agriculture, where they will be used to monitor and eventually spray crops.

"The farmer will be able to, via precision GPS, find out what areas of his farms need pesticide. So the tractor goes out and hits just that area. He uses less fertilizer, less water, it's better for the environment, increased yields, it makes sense. And for a system that costs maybe $10,000, it'll pay for itself easily in one growing season."

"We really believe that in a few years, a farmer will be at a competitive disadvantage if he does not have an unmanned aircraft," he added.

Gielow's group predicts in Maryland alone, commercial use of unmanned vehicle systems would create more than 1,700 new jobs and more than $330 million in economic impact within the first three years

He says fears about privacy are really a data issue.

"An unmanned aircraft carries a camera, so they can give maybe a different vantage point to take a picture, but ultimately the privacy laws that are on the book really at the state and the local level govern privacy issues. Whether someone is invading your privacy with binoculars, a telephoto lens, an unmanned aircraft or whatever, that person should be punished."

He says so far 43 states have introduced legislation aimed at restricting unmanned aircraft, and nine states have passed drone-related legislation.

Matt Scassero, director of the Unmanned Aircraft System Test Site at the University of Maryland, also spoke at the briefing.

"We are already falling behind the rest of the world on unmanned air systems," he said.

"Every Marylander should be excited by this technology," said Scassero, because drones could be used to closely monitor the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

He says NOAA is very interested in using drones to get a closer look at hurricanes.

"One of the areas that traditionally they have not been able to get to in hurricane research is the bottom 5,000 feet of a hurricane."

Recently, Virginia Tech was chosen as one of six drone tests sites around the country, and thanks to a memo of understanding between the schools, the University of Maryland will take part in the research and testing.

Scassero says the program, called the Mid Atlantic Aviation Partnership, will be operational within the next two months.

Drone test and research sites in our region might include Webster Field outside Naval Air Station Patuxent River, general aviation airports in Crisfield and St. Mary's County, as well as NASA's Wallops Flight Facility.

Scassero says Maryland is already benefiting from the development of drones.

"Right now, Maryland is second in the nation, only behind California, in the unmanned system industry."

"This fall, The University of Maryland Eastern Shore plans on establishing a degree program in unmanned systems. The University of Maryland College Park is looking at a masters certificate this fall, and then working on minors in unmanned aircraft systems."

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