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Trusted local news leader for Prescott area communities since 1882
6:25 AM Thu, Sept. 20th

Editorial: Drone aircraft elicit anxiety

It has occurred to us that some explanation about drones is necessary, in the wake of Yavapai County partnering with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in late 2011 - and then earlier this month the county grounding the plan.

On June 12, the Courier reported that in response to public concerns voiced at nearly every meeting of the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors, Chairman Tom Thurman said the county's plans to fly unmanned drones as part of an agreement with ERAU had been put on hold.

Frankly, Americans are leery about the use of domestic drones. The Federal Aviation Administration is taking on the task of developing plans and procedures to open the skies to the use of unmanned aircraft by police, other agencies and individuals. It has a September 2015 deadline for defining the policy that would greatly expand their use. The rules would set limits on size, flight restrictions and who can operate drones.

For the unlearned, the Department of Homeland Security currently uses drones to patrol the northern and southern U.S. borders. Domestic drones vary in size from a few ounces to larger units similar to those used to conduct surveillance and other military operations overseas. Presently law enforcement officials see the drones already in use as a cheap alternative to helicopters and planes for search-and-rescue operations, investigating an accident scene, or other surveillance.

It is likely the "other surveillance" use that has people so nervous. It screams of George Orwell's big brother problems from "1984." The majority of Americans were not supportive of drones for "other policing activities," according to a recent poll by the Monmouth University Polling Institute. Its results showed four of five people polled had some concerns about their privacy, which is understandable given the possibility that in the next few years there could be thousands of high-tech, unmanned machines flying unnoticed in U.S. skies.

Thurman told the Courier the local complaints were "based on a misunderstanding of the county's current involvement with (unmanned aerial vehicle) programs," and that the Memorandum of Understanding the board approved was contingent "on resolution of the outstanding items and a final review by the board's legal counsel. During subsequent discussions, county staff was advised that the terms of the original MOU were not in compliance with applicable federal safety regulations."

That brings us full circle and the agreement goes on the shelf. Will it ever take off? Based on the FAA's deliberations and law enforcement desires, you can count on it.