They’re controversial, they’re high-tech they’ll soon be in Central New York skies as the result of a recent Federal Aviation Administration decision.
They are unmanned aerial vehicles — or UAVs, often called drones. Central New York has been chosen as one of six testing sites for UAVs by the FAA in December. The closest test site to Syracuse will be in Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome.
Supporters argue that the test site will benefit the local economy and bring high-tech jobs. But opponents fear that drones pose a privacy and safety threat.
One of the supporters is NUAIR or Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance, a Syracuse-based alliance of over 40 academic and business groups. NUAIR won approval to be one of the six testing operations. The CNY area already has several companies — like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon — in different technologies used in drones.
The new technologies from the testing site will help expand the UAV industry, said Andrea Bianchi, program manager for NUAIR. “It will create a lot of investment into the area and attract a lot of new businesses,” said Bianchi. She predicts that the UAV industry will add 20,000 jobs over the next 15 years.
All six test sites will focus on perfecting what’s known as “sense and avoid” technology. That would help the drones detect and then fly around any obstacles such as buildings, other aircraft and tall geographic features like mountains. The goal is to allow UAVs to fly safely in national airspace along with other aircraft.
Drones have been used by the military in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. They have often been criticized for killing civilians when they miss their real targets. The 174th Fighter Wing operates Reaper drones out of Hancock Airport. The 174th has often been the target of protests by the Syracuse Peace Council and other anti-war activists.
The Syracuse Peace Council has expressed several concerns about what they see as potential threats from drones to individual privacy. Law enforcement can use drones to conduct surveillance without warrants, the Peace Council warns.
“What I call ‘Lost Puppy’ drones worry me because if a drone is out looking for say, a lost puppy, then it is also collecting lots of data and video beyond that search which is saved and will likely end up in the hands of government agencies,” said Carol Baum, a member of the Syracuse Peace Council.
Government officials expect roughly 7,500 small UAVs in the air by 2018. Their estimates predict as many as 30,000 drones in the national airspace by 2030.
(Andrew Troast is a senior majoring in broadcast and digital journalism.)