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U.S. Opinions: Philadelphia

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Look for the day when drones fill domestic skies

From an editorial Monday in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

While millions of Americans have made peace with Google posting online pictures of their front doors, and having video cameras pointed at them in every coffee shop, workplace and public setting imaginable, the notion of camera-equipped drones buzzing overhead in nonmilitary settings is making many want to duck for cover.

At a recent U.S. House hearing that followed the federal government’s announcement of plans for six drone test sites, a Republican congressman, Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, said citizens “are just frightened” about the use of drones and possible “invasions of their privacy and violations of their civil rights.”

The prospect that as many as 10,000 unmanned planes and helicopter-like surveillance devices could be launched into the nation’s skies in the coming years might have once been regarded as a science-fiction scenario. But no more.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which sought the test-site proposals, has been working under a congressional directive to figure out how drones could be deployed safely above U.S. communities as soon as September 2015.

The prospect of using drones on domestic shores – and not just for military purposes abroad – holds great promise, but also poses great challenges.

From an economic standpoint, there’s little doubt that thousands of well-paying jobs could be generated in aviation-related industries if domestic drone use for surveillance takes off.

As for drones’ possible uses, in the hands of civilian and law enforcement authorities, businesses and individuals, the relatively inexpensive gadgetry could aid in search-and-rescue missions, crime-fighting, commercial photography, land-use surveying and even news-gathering.

The challenges, though, are just as daunting, including the potential threat to safety in the air and on the ground, and the privacy risks that could prove to be the tipping point toward a surveillance society.

All these concerns need to be worked out before federal authorities grant permission for domestic drone flights, and it would be best if these safeguards were developed at the federal level to assure uniform privacy protections.

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