S.C. vying to serve as drone test site amid controversy surrounding unmanned aircraft
COLUMBIA — Call it the game of drones.
With concerns about the rise of a “Big Brother”-like spy government swirling in some circles, South Carolina is among 37 states with an applicant competing to host one of six new domestic unmanned aircraft testing sites.
The purpose of the test site program is to learn about how drones operate in different environments, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees the program.
The agency said test sites will conduct research into how best to safely integrate the aircraft into the national airspace over the next several years.
The exact nature of the testing will vary according to the chosen applicants’ proposals, according to the FAA.
To date, drones are most widely known for their use by the federal government for intelligence gathering and missile strikes.
But the aircraft are increasingly being deployed by local law enforcement for such purposes as search- and-rescue missions and to get to locations officers can’t. The federal government also is using drones to patrol the border with Mexico.
The ramped-up deployment of the unmanned aircraft by government agencies has led to a round of blowback, with state legislators — including some in South Carolina — filing bills that would limit the use of the technology.
Rep. Dan Hamilton, R-Greenville, filed a bill this session that would make it illegal for law enforcement in South Carolina to use unmanned aircraft without a warrant.
In the state Senate, libertarian-leaning Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, also has introduced a measure that would restrict drone use. His bill would bar government entities, including law enforcement, from conducting general surveillance or surveillance of a targeted person using a drone without a search warrant.
“My concerns are when drones are used as a tool of law enforcement,” Davis said. “The potential for abusing drones is extremely high, and the potential for invading personal privacy is extremely high.”
Davis said he was not aware that any entity in the state is competing to test unmanned aircraft, but said he wanted to find out more information on the program before voicing an opinion on it.
Neither drone-restriction proposal has advanced past a committee in the first year of a two-year legislative session.
Civil liberties groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union also have raised concerns about the use of drones domestically.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has been a major backer of the White House administration’s use of drones. He recently told The Washington Post that it would have been useful for law enforcement to have had a drone in Boston to track a fleeing marathon bombing suspect.
Graham’s office last week declined comment on a South Carolina bid for the test site program.
It’s unclear what institution from the state is competing to land a test site, which trade groups and research firms say could bring plenty of investment by drone manufacturers.
Also murky is where the test site or sites would be in South Carolina and in some other states.
FAA spokesman Les Dorr said the agency cannot reveal the identities of the 50 applicants, or how many applicants each state has, under federal procurement guidelines.
Some states’ applicants are already known.
Applicants must include a government entity, such as a state or local government or a university. Being designated a test site won’t bring federal funding, so applicants will have to secure funding from their own sources.
Winners are expected to be chosen by the end of the year.
The Charleston area, with its booming aerospace industry led by Boeing Co., would appear to be a logical locale for a test-site application. Some of the independently confirmed testing site applicants are partnerships between aerospace companies and state and local government.
Boeing directed questions about the test site program to the S.C. Commerce Department.
A department spokeswoman said the agency is not aware of any bidders from the state. The agency, by way of its Aerospace Task Force, looked into the original drone-testing site request by the FAA, spokeswoman Amy Love said. But Love said the agency determined there were no suitable sites in the state that would meet FAA requirements.
A bidder from South Carolina still is in the running, according to the FAA.
The type of drones that will be tested at the sites depends in part on which proposals are chosen, Dorr said.
He said in selecting applicants, the agency will consider geographic and climatic diversity, location of ground infrastructure, population and air-traffic density, along with research needs.
Reach Stephen Largen at email@example.com.