U.S. industry touts 'drone' promise as public debate flares

WASHINGTON Thu May 23, 2013 2:40am EDT

1 of 3. Two Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton unmanned aerial vehicles are seen on the tarmac at a Northrop Grumman test facility in Palmdale, California May 22, 2013 in this handout photo provided by the U.S. Navy May 22, 2013. U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman/Chad Slattery/Handout via Reuters

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Public backlash against deadly overseas drone strikes may undermine promising uses of such technology for anything from disaster response to mail delivery, a top U.S. industry group said as it launched a lobbying effort to "demystify" unmanned planes.

The Aerospace Industries Association wants to prevent misperceptions and regulatory roadblocks from cutting into a market it says could be worth $89 billion over the next decade, according to a report the trade group will release on Thursday.

The report comes as President Barack Obama on Thursday is expected to lay out the rationale for U.S. drone strikes in a major speech on why the strikes are "necessary, legal and just.

"Until public discussion moves beyond misnomers and false assumptions about unmanned system, it will be difficult to advance substantive policy changes that enable growth of this highly beneficial technology," the AIA report said.

U.S. government sources told Reuters on Monday that the Pentagon would take over some drone operations run by the CIA, a move that could increase congressional oversight of such missions.

Separately, Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday said four U.S. citizens were killed in drone strikes in Yemen and elsewhere, news that could stoke further controversy.

Responding to mounting backlash, aerospace spokesman Dan Stohr said lawmakers need to be more aware of how unmanned systems could be used for everything from border patrol to weather forecasting and boosting agricultural production, or even locating stranded hikers, and be able to separate fact from "science fiction."

"The notion that we're going to have armed drones in the U.S. national air space is just a total misnomer," Stohr said.

The AIA report, which kicks off a major industry lobbying effort, had been in the works for a month and was not timed to coincide with Obama's speech, Stohr added.


Northrop Grumman Corp, which builds the high-flying Global Hawk spy plane and the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, Boeing Co, and other drone makers are counting on civil and foreign sales for continued growth in the unmanned plane segment as U.S. defense spending starts to decline.

Dennis Muilenburg, president of Boeing's defense division, which builds the smaller Scan Eagle unmanned system but has also developed a high-altitude drone, told analysts on Wednesday that his company saw unmanned systems as a growth area.

Boeing, Northrop and Lockheed Martin Corp all plan to compete for a U.S. Navy contract to build a new unmanned combat plane that can land on an aircraft carrier - one of few new military aircraft development programs being launched in the current tough budget environment.

The U.S. government flies more than 1 million unmanned flight hours each year and the Pentagon operates more than 7,000 unmanned aircraft, according to the AIA report, which estimated that spending would nearly double to $11.4 billion a year over the next decade.

Privately held General Atomics builds the Predator and armed Reaper unmanned planes used for counterterrorism operations.

Northrop's unmanned X-47B demonstration aircraft last week became the first unmanned plane to be launched off an aircraft carrier. On Wednesday, the company's MQ-4C Triton, the U.S. Navy's version of the Global Hawk, made its first flight in Palmdale, California.

Northrop spokesman Randy Belote said the pair of "firsts" showed the depth and breadth of Northrop's unmanned portfolio. He said military commanders continued to clamor for surveillance and reconnaissance data, which unmanned planes were ideally suited to provide.

The U.S. military's pivot to Asia, with its vast expanses of land and oceans, would only strengthen that demand, even as the U.S. military reduced its use of drones in Iraq and Afghanistan, Belote said.

The AIA report said unmanned planes used for border patrol and other civilian uses faced obstacles to growth, among them inadequate allocation of bands on the electromagnetic spectrum for radio communications and a lack of guidelines for integrating drones into U.S. air space.

Outdated missile control rules also made it difficult to export unmanned planes, the group said.

It also raised concerns about a growing number of states and communities that have passed laws banning or restricting the use of unmanned planes due to privacy concerns.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Ros Krasny and Lisa Shumaker)

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Comments (11)
9907 wrote:
I am totally in favor of the Drones and the Drone attacks. It’s efficient and a lot cheaper than war. I also do not have any problem with their use on Americans after all the Boston Bombers were Americans as was Michael McVey.

May 23, 2013 7:43am EDT  --  Report as abuse
AZreb wrote:
Prevent “regulatory roadblocks” – in other words, NO regulations! After all, there are billions to be made, so who needs regulations.

May 23, 2013 10:23am EDT  --  Report as abuse
totherepublic wrote:
The drones are not the problem. A loaded drone in a hanger is no more a problem than a loaded gun in a holster. Just like we don’t want a nut case to grab a gun and start killing kid in a playground we don’t want nut cases to launch drones and start killing any one he does not like with total impunity and accountability. With drones it is 100% stealth and we have no idea it has been done until some one owns up to it. Unfortunately the guy we have pushing the buttons on our drones has a track record of not owning up to much at all. That is a problem. What track record you say? If you do not ADMIT to knowing that you are either living in a cave or a complete liar. I do not think we need to stop making and using drone any more than we need to stop carrying guns. We just need to get the nut cases off the streets and out of office. BTW I did not mention any particular nut cases did I? Red or blue. If the shoe fits any particular nut case you have in mind OWN UP TO IT!

May 23, 2013 10:50am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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