Are drones the engine of the next economic boom?
Officials in the six states selected Monday to develop drone test sites certainly seem to think so. Despite concern about government surveillance dominating the headlines this year, those behind the successful bids ended 2013 cheering over the possibility of a new commercial drone industry.
"This is wonderful news for Nevada that creates a huge opportunity for our economy," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement, after his state was selected as one of the six sites.
The Federal Aviation Administration announced its selection on Monday. The reaction helped further underscore the divide among lawmakers, business interests and privacy advocates about the future of drone development.
On one side are lawmakers like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. -- whose famous 13-hour filibuster this year centered on concerns about armed drones -- and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which is pressing Congress to enact "strong" privacy rules for domestic drones.
On the other side are drone developers and lawmakers whose states stand to benefit from a new sector in the economy. The type of drones at issue here are not the Predator and other armed drones that launch lethal strikes on suspected terrorists abroad. Rather, the FAA authorized the six test sites to research how commercial drones can eventually be introduced into U.S. airspace.
Think Amazon, and its ambitious goal of one day employing drones to deliver packages.
The FAA does not currently allow commercial use of drones, but it is working to develop operational guidelines by the end of 2015, although officials concede the project may take longer than expected.
Testing on the six drone sites could start soon, and is slated to continue at least until February 2017.
Officials say that these research sites, as well as the expansion of a commercial drone industry, could bring an economic windfall.
In Nevada, officials predicted thousands of jobs, as well as $2.5 billion in economic impact -- and $125 million in state and local tax revenue. A 28-member team competed for the bid, including the Nevada National Guard and a company called Drone America.
Alaska, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia were also selected as testing sites.
North Dakota has one of the most ambitious plans, with officials aiming for the state to become a "hub" for unmanned aircraft development. The University of North Dakota already has a drone research center. Plus the state is developing an aerospace complex at Grand Forks Air Force Base.
"The selection of Grand Forks as a UAS (unmanned aerial systems) test site is an affirmation that the Grand Forks area is an ideal location for military installations, and unmanned aerial systems in particular," Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said in a statement. "The test site will help grow the UAS industry throughout the nation and help make sure it can become a key part of North Dakota's economy."
An industry-commissioned study has predicted more than 70,000 jobs would develop in the first three years after Congress loosens drone restrictions on U.S. skies. The same study projects an average salary range for a drone pilot between $85,000 and $115,000.
The FAA projects some 7,500 commercial drones could be aloft within five years of getting widespread access to the skies above America.
"Today was an important step," said attorney Ben Gielow of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, noting the announcement came after months of delays and data gathering. "I think we're all anxious to get this moving."
The competition for a test site was robust, with 25 entities in 24 states submitting proposals, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said during a conference call with reporters.
At least one of the six sites chosen by the FAA will be up and running within 180 days, while the others are expected to come online in quick succession, he said. However, the designation as a test site doesn't come with a financial award from the government.
Skepticism about the development of domestic drones remains widespread. Paul has a bill in Congress that would bar drones from monitoring for violations without a warrant. In Illinois, lawmakers already passed a bill that would prohibit law enforcement from using drones to gather information, unless they have a warrant and only in specific circumstances.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.