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Drone Manufacturers Aim to Change Image
By Sandra I. Erwin



The industry that supplies military robots and unmanned aerial vehicles has launched a rebranding campaign.

Manufacturers of remotely piloted aircraft, particularly, worry that their products are known mostly for spying and killing and not for their beneficial attributes.

The group that represents the industry, the Association for Unmanned Vehicles International, or AUVSI, launched a website called IncreasingHumanPotential.org that is part of a broader marketing and messaging effort to paint these technologies in a positive light.

AUVSI President and CEO Michael Toscano said the industry has to work harder at educating the public and policymakers in Washington on the technological benefits of unmanned systems.

Robotic systems are a key piece of the nation’s technological future, he said Feb. 14 during the association’s annual programs review in McLean, Va.

Toscano said he wants to prevent negative PR from slowing down technological progress and development of new products. Years of drone wars and fiery rhetoric by privacy and human rights groups have tarnished the industry’s image and manufacturers are seeking to change the tone of the debate.

“If we don't field, we fail,” said Toscano.

While unmanned aircraft have been hugely successful in the military market, they have had a tougher time expanding their domestic applications in areas such as law enforcement. The barriers are not technological but regulatory, Toscano said. Issues such as liability and insurance, he added, “are the things we have to address to get technology in the field.”

AUVSI has been actively promoting the nonmilitary side of drone technology in sectors such as agriculture, border security, search and rescue, humanitarian relief and scientific research. Maritime robots are being marketed in the energy industry and in academia as tools for underwater exploration and research.

The website will tell the “good news” about unmanned systems, said Toscano. “We have to get those good stories out there … get the message out on the positive things that unmanned systems do.” Robots, he said, execute “dangerous missions that would put human lives at risk.”

The Obama administration’s increasing use of aerial drone strikes to target suspected terrorists has caused a political backlash, although it has not slowed down the U.S. military’s demand for the technology. The industry, nevertheless, projects limited growth opportunities in the military market as defense budgets decline and the Pentagon cuts back on purchases of new hardware. The civilian market has been the industry’s promised land for many years, but it has been a tough go. The Federal Aviation Administration is not yet ready to allow drones in national airspace, although it has promised to begin to do so in 2015. Privacy groups, meanwhile, have sounded alarms about drones becoming instruments of the police state.   

Toscano said these are “challenges” that the industry can overcome. He praised the FAA’s announcement Feb. 14 that it will request proposals to develop and test unmanned aircraft systems at six sites around the country. “While we would prefer the FAA not limit the number of test sites, we applaud the agency for finally taking this important step, which will help create jobs and ensure the U.S. remains a global leader in aviation innovation.”

The House science, space and technology subcommittee on oversight invited representatives from the FAA, NASA and the Government Accountability Office Feb. 15 to probe technologies that are needed to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace.

Toscano said optimism about the future of unmanned systems is fueling industry participation in AUVSI. The group has 600 corporate and 7,200 individual members.

Association members will head to Capitol Hill April 9 to meet with House and Senate supporters and discuss the way ahead for the industry, Toscano said. The House Unmanned Systems Caucus is led by Reps. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., and Henry Cuellar, D-Texas. The Senate Unmanned Aerial Systems Caucus is led by Sens. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

McKeon said there is still a “lack of understanding” in the general public about drone technology and the role of government in overseeing its use.

Photo Credit: Air Force

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