Huntsville Vies To Be Test Site For Domestic Drone Program

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala.(WHNT)-Could an eye in the sky soon be flying over homes in Huntsville?

Mayor Tommy Battle has confirmed that Huntsville is one of several dozen cities from around the country that are vying to be one of six testing sites for a domestic drone program. The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to select the final six cities later this year, part of a new law that requires the FAA to open up U.S. airspace to civilian drones by the fall of 2015.

Mayor Battle told WHNT News 19 that being picked as a test site could bring a job boom to the Rocket City with a similar military drone program already being quarterbacked out of Redstone Arsenal.  But, privacy advocates have said the domestic drone program poses a major threat to citizens' constitutional rights and worry that the test sites are the beginning stages of an unrestrained "surveillance society."

"There are a number of communities that are competing for this and we will be competing," said Mayor Battle. "Huntsville fits as a test site because we are the lead of the unmanned aerial vehicle program for the Army. It takes it from a purely military application to maybe a commercial application so we can actually provide jobs. There are a lot of technological applications this can be used for that really make a lot of sense. I really have heard nobody talk about eyes in the sky."

Advocates for domestic drones say possible benefits include improved crop monitoring for farmers, strengthened power grid troubleshooting by utility companies and an increased criminal apprehension rate for law enforcement agencies. Drones have been utilized strictly for overseas military operations until recently.  The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol is one of a few entities that have recently started using the drones on American soil.

Privacy advocates said the potential for increased surveillance through drones puts the rights of every U.S. citizen at risk whether they realize it or not.

"You have to know there's going to be some risk to privacy and I think shrugging that off is irresponsible," said Amie Stepanovich, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). "The test sites are probably going to be the places where the very first commercial drones are flown, where surveillance is taking place, where an increased number of government and law enforcement agencies are able to fly drones.  So, the individuals there are likely to be the subject of surveillance."

EPIC is asking residents in Huntsville and other potential test sites to contact both the FAA and their elected officials about the risks posed by a domestic drone program.

The FAA has already posted a draft plan online that they say would protect the privacy of people who live in drone test site cities. That plan includes a policy that would require each test site to make a privacy policy publicly available.

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