Where Will the Drone Jobs Go? States Balance Economic Opportunity with Privacy Concerns

Almost every state wants a piece of the burgeoning drone industry, but lawmakers also want to protect citizens' privacy. States are approaching this balancing act in a variety of ways.

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Julie Jacobson / AP

Drones are on the minds of a lot of lawmakers right now. Their domestic arrival is now inevitable—the FAA estimates that 7,500 small drones, formally referred to as unmanned aircraft, will be in American skies by 2018. Drones will be fertilizing crops, aiding in search and rescue, and helping cops chase down criminals. And they’ll be creating jobs—lots of them, in areas such as manufacturing, training, and research and development. The unmanned aircraft industry hopes that there will be 100,000 people with drone-related jobs by 2025.

State legislators want those jobs for their communities, but they’re also aware that drones today are most famous for two things—spying and killing. This year lawmakers are engaging in a careful political dance, trying to make their states open to drones while also protecting citizens’ civil liberties.These sometimes contradictory goals have created a tough environment for drone-restricting legislation to actually become law, despite a flurry of interest across the country.

“There’s tension right now and there always will be,” says Todd Gilbert, a Republican legislator in the Virginia House of Delegates. “I’m sure the interests who stand to make a lot of money off of this technology will fight tooth and nail to tamp down any privacy concerns at every turn.”

Virginia has been an early mover on drone legislation. In early April its legislature enacted a two-year moratorium on the use of drones by law enforcement agencies, the first of its kind to successfully pass in the country. Idaho followed up with a similarly restrictive law a few days later. At least 34 other states are considering drone laws this year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

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The worry surrounding such laws is that they might sacrifice jobs in certain states during a critical year for drone development. By the end of 2013 the Federal Aviation Administration will authorize six test sites around the country where unmanned aircraft can fly free as researchers and manufacturers develop the technology. Drone jobs and investment dollars are expected to flow to these research hubs. Fifty entrants from 37 states have applied for the prized designation.

States with drone laws now on the books hope that restrictions won’t hurt their chances of being named a test site. “That was something we definitely considered and made adjustments for throughout the process,” says Ben Cline, a Republican legislator in Virginia who authored the moratorium bill. The new law doesn’t apply to research applications of drones. “We want to be proactive in trying to encourage technological advancement in this area, and so we made sure that the bill did not impact that.”

Other states, though, are taking no chances. A North Dakota bill, which would have banned police use of drones without a warrant and required images gathered by drones to be destroyed within 90 days, passed easily in the state’s House of Representatives but was defeated soundly in the Senate. Mac Schneider, a Democratic senator, argues that such a law could have needlessly stalled a growing industry. “Now that we’ve defeated that bill in the Senate, it sends a clear message to the FAA that North Dakota’s open for business and wants to continue to play an important role in developing the UAS industry,” he says.

Schneider and many others argue that specific drone legislation isn’t necessary because the 4th Amendment already protects Americans from privacy invasions. “The choice wasn’t between economic development and our civil rights,” he says. “I just don’t think the legislature needs to be singling out this one particular technology for heightened scrutiny when the courts have proven themselves capable of dealing with technological change within the context of our right against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

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The FAA has been purposefully vague about what type of drone laws might help or hurt an applicant’s chances of gaining a test site, leaving states to make their own inferences. “The FAA will evaluate each test site application on its own merits, including the impacts, if any, or state or local laws, regulations, resolutions, etc., being included in that evaluation,” a spokesman said in an emailed statement. According to the test site application, applicants with no drone-restrictive laws will be scored highest, but applicants who are able to prove that drone legislation won’t affect a test site can earn an equally high score.

The drone industry itself is less mincing in its choice of words. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the drone industry’s lobbying arm that estimates that 100,000 drone jobs will be created by 2025, concedes that “restrictive legislation” could slow job growth. “States that create favorable regulatory and business environments for the industry and the technology will likely siphon jobs away from states that do not,” the study reads. AUVSI did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment for this story.

Some states are balancing privacy and industry by presenting multiple bills at once. In California, which has the highest unemployment rate in the nation, Republican Jeff Gorell and Democrat Steven Bradford have presented a typical privacy bill that guards against drone surveillance, but they’re also pushing a bill that would provide tax breaks to drone manufacturers who set up shop in the state. Gorell says it’s been a challenge convincing his constituents that they’d actually want a drone maker in their community. Meetings explaining the way that unmanned aircraft can be used in agriculture and other sectors have helped. “That is an education that I have to do…in terms of explaining that the growth potential here is really in areas that have absolutely nothing to do with spying on people,” he says.

(MORE: Why We Shouldn’t Fear Personal Drones)

So far drone bills have had a tough time passing muster with lawmakers. While North Dakota voted down its bill, other states, like Oklahoma, are choosing to table potential legislation and save the debate for another year — after the test sites are named. A drone-limiting bill in Washington died after Boeing lobbied against it. Only Virginia, Idaho, and most recently Florida have had drone bills that actually became law.

The locations of the FAA test sites will provide clues as to where the drone industry will flourish, whether it be in the wide open skies of North Dakota or the more controlled environment of Virginia. States hungry for jobs will have to decide whether they want laws that actively recruit drones or protect people from them.

“Ultimately it will be a global industry,” Gorell says. “We’re talking about at least thousands of jobs, if not tens of thousands of jobs, and billions of dollars in investment and economic development that, frankly, California can’t afford to thumb its nose at.”