Drones in States: Capital or Privacy?

There is a national debate simmering in the U.S. right now. Should state lawmakers welcome the drone industry in their backyard, or should they pass legislation that restricts the spread of unmanned aerial vehicles in the skies, in fear of privacy violations?

Two contradictory logics in operation: capital and privacy. And ultimately, as ever, it will be the former that triumphs.

With the promise of jobs, jobs, jobs, many state legislators see the booming industry as a vital crutch to prop up a sagging American economy. Others see the slow encroachment of drones in law enforcement as a creepy, 1984-esque government intrusion that is unconstitutional. And some even want to have their cake and eat it: sponsoring bills for tax breaks for the industry, at the same time as blocking law enforcement from using unmanned aircraft.

The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that 7,500 small drones will be in American skies by 2018.

In early April of 2012, Virginia passed a two-year moratorium on the use of drones by law enforcement – the first of its kind in the country. At least 34 other states are considering drone legislation this year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“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.”

The FAA is set to announce 6 “test sites” in the U.S. by the close of 2013, where drones can roam freely for researchers and manufacturers. Even Virginia, which passed the moratorium, was keen to keep the door open for investment.

“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.”

According to Time, “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.”

It seems that ultimately state-level law will only slow the spread of drones in everyday life. And the logic of capital will outmanoeuvre the logic of privacy.

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