Michael Toscano wants his great-grandchildren to grow up in a world better than his own.
As president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, he wants them to live long and happy lives made more convenient by technology that will be available in two or three decades. He wants them to grow up with drones flying in the sky.
These drones, or unmanned aerial systems, have reached the forefront of the American media’s consciousness in the past several years, accompanied by a negative light not necessarily based in reality, Toscano said.
“This is just an extension of the eyes and the ears and the hands of a human being — to be able to do these dirty, dangerous, difficult and dull jobs that human beings are exposed to,” he said.
Lawmakers, including in this state, have begun to carve out legislation that would allow for the use of drones in both commercial and police settings, a possible response to the Federal Aviation Administration’s estimate that thousands will be sent airborne over the United States by 2017.
Sen. Jim Rosapepe (D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s) organized a briefing, scheduled to take place later this month, that will examine the issues of drone technology, specifically in industry.
“It’s like any new technology. It’s going to change the way people operate,” said Rosapepe, Senate chairman of the Joint Information Technology and Biotechnology Committee. “It’s going to be a very significant technology going forward. I think it’s a big deal.”
Rosapepe outlined four primary issues that would be discussed at the briefing: how drones will affect economic development in this state, how the FAA will alter its airspace regulations, how industries like agriculture will use the technology and how law enforcement can make use of drones.
The law enforcement topic in particular has intensified since last year’s Boston Marathon bombing, which left three dead and hundreds injured. Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis told the Boston Herald after the April 15 attack that drones would be a “great idea” for next year’s marathon.
Some, however, suggest police drone use could lead to unlawful surveillance if the proper legislation is not drafted in the near future.
“You have a number of people who say, ‘Well, I’m not doing anything wrong, so it’s no big deal.’ But it is a big deal,” said Sara Love, public policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. “We have a basic tenet in our society that we don’t follow people, we don’t track people, unless we believe that they have committed a crime, that they are doing something wrong.”
This state was one of 24 in contention last year to be chosen as a testing ground for drone technology. It was not selected, but it will still play a role in the development happening in Virginia.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery County) that was scheduled to be heard yesterday would establish guidelines that prohibit this state from acquiring or disclosing information collected from a drone except under certain circumstances.
Others, such as Toscano, argue that civil guidelines to prevent spying on civilians are already in place and that drones should not be blamed for trust issues.
“The question is not the technology but that they don’t trust the police,” he said. “So why do we give police guns? And if you’re concerned about them misusing the technology, then we’ve got a bigger problem than the technology.”
Toscano, who spent 20 years working in the Pentagon for the Defense Department before joining AUVSI in 2009, said the negative perception of drones in the United States was blown out of proportion by media outlets covering the conflicts in the Middle East. He said explosions caused by IEDs are sometimes misclassified as drone strikes to catch media attention.
He likened drone technology to that of other monumental inventions in history, such as the elevator.
“In another couple of generations, this conversation won’t be needed,” he said.
Staff writer Joe Antoshak is a sophomore journalism major covering science and technology. You can reach him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @mantoshak.