For many of us, the acronym UAV (which stands for unmanned aerial vehicle) is synonymous with weaponized drones and faraway airstrikes we occasionally read about in the news. Contrary to this view and the Star Advertiser’s (“Let’s be clear about limits of drone use” January 05, 2014) equally cautious perspective, there is another side to this over-militarized view of our advanced flying technologies.

Sometimes we forget that the military is often the testing grounds that immensely benefits civil society through later commercial applications. Take for example the discoveries of antibiotics, jet travel, the Internet, and GPS that were advanced by U.S. military investments that paved the way for mainstream commercial applications. Can anyone imagine life on this planet without the Internet?

UAVs thus have numerous applications which can serve to improve our lives in Hawaii and the world as a whole. One of the more popularized examples of this made headlines when CEO Jeff Bezos declared his company’s interest in using drones to deliver packages directly to customers’ doorsteps.

And while it is easy to shrug the idea off as overly optimistic or a PR stunt, UAVs of similar size are already available to hobby and toy consumers. Brookstone, for example, sells a helicopter that can be controlled from a smartphone or tablet and includes an onboard camera. Where it once took countless hours to master control of such aircraft, advancements in microelectronics have given anyone the ability to fly them relatively easily.

Now businesses have become very interested in integrating UAV technology into their operations. But UAV flight is currently all but prohibited for anything but government operations. In order to eventually change that, the FAA has established testing sites for UAV flight that will try to determine how to integrate the technology into the existing national airspace and develop rules that commercial operators must follow.

The state of Hawaii will become the location of some of this testing. The state’s diverse topography and ample airspace over the ocean make it well-suited to perform such testing. The unmanned aircraft being tested can range in size from as small as 2.5 pounds and the size of a smoke detector up to 50 pounds with a wingspan of approximately 10 feet.

Designing UAVs that can perform a wide variety of missions including agricultural work, infrastructure inspection, wildlife management, film production, and weather forecasting presents Hawaii with the opportunity to be a leader in multi-billion dollar industry which could attract high-paying, stable jobs. UAVs could even save lives by searching for victims after a natural disaster or tracking the movement of a shark lurking along popular beaches.

Despite the obvious benefit that UAVs could provide, they have been routinely criticized for their capacity to breach the privacy of American citizens in a manner never before seen. And this capacity, coupled with mounting concerns over government spying programs have vilified the UAV’s image with much of the public.

This fact, however, must not and surely will not stop their development. While the nation continues to debate Big Brother programs that have collected ever more information about our personal lives, we should not turn our backs on a technology that has the potential to transform the world we live in for the better.

Instead, we should focus on adopting the beneficial applications of UAV technology while insisting on their proper oversight and regulation. That is why some of us are forming an AeroSpace Caucus in the Hawaii State Legislature and have introduced bills this session that will promote as well as tame UAV activity in Hawaii.

About the author: Rep. Gene Ward (R-Hawaii Kai –Kalama Valley) is Vice Chair of the Economic Development and Business Committee in the House of Representatives.

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