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Drones at home: Time rapidly approaches when unmanned aircraft will dot U.S. skies

Published: Thursday, July 5 2012 2:45 p.m. MDT

A Predator drone unmanned aerial vehicle takes off on a U.S. Customs Border Patrol.

Associated Press

A polarizing debate is emerging over whether the unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as "drones," should be allowed into U.S. airspace for use by local law enforcement and private businesses.

"No longer a tool used strictly by the military to take out terrorists overseas, drones of all shapes and sizes will soon be in our skies here at home for surveillance missions by local police departments, energy companies looking to build pipelines and farmers looking to feed thirsty crops," CNET's Jeff Glor reported Wednesday.

Drone technology may already be a billion-dollar industry, but as Ryan Gallagher blogged Tuesday for Slate, "One of the most significant barriers the industry faces is undoubtedly public opposition. There are critics on all sides of the political spectrum. In the United States, that includes not only campaign groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU, but also libertarian Fox News firebrands."

An industry trade group aimed to preempt the growing controversy by releasing the first-ever code of conduct for the operation of drone aircraft earlier this week. "The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International said Monday that the recommendations for 'safe, non-intrusive operation' are meant to guide operators and reassure a public leery of the possibility of spy drones flying undetected over their homes," Kevin Begos wrote for the Associated Press.

But as CBS News reported Wednesday, the dialogue about domestic drone usage took an unexpected turn when news broke that a University of Texas professor and his students "were able to hack into (a civilian) drone's GPS signals (and) later, in an exercise done in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security at White Sands, N.M., they were even able to make the drone land."

ABC News columnist Lee Dye responded to the recent development and the security issues it inevitably raises by noting how soon drones are slated to dot American airspace: "There isn't a lot of time to fix this problem. Congress has mandated that the Federal Aviation Administration come up with the rules to allow civilian drones in U.S. airspace by 2015. And after that, they could be everywhere."

Last month, Wired's Danger Room national security blog reported that the U.S. military is already operating 64 drone bases in America, with another 22 in the planning stages. (This map shows the Army is already operating drones out of Dugway, Utah, with plans in place for Special Operations Command to begin launching drones from Camp Williams at some future date.)

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