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Begich Optimistic on UAVs, Says Protecting Civil Liberties Takes Precedent

Potential Research Opportunities Cannot Trump Right to Privacy

Intent on protecting civil liberties, U.S. Senator Mark Begich attended the hearing amidst concerns about the legal guidelines that govern the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and asked for assurances that expanding UAV activities in U.S. airspace would not pose a threat to privacy and constitutionally protected rights.  

“I see great potential to grow Alaska’s economy by pioneering UAV research and testing,” said Begich. “But we must ensure we have adequate privacy protections in place before we consider any changes to the current regulations that prohibit the commercial use of UAVs in U.S. airspace.” 

At the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing entitled, “The Future of Unmanned Aviation in the U.S. Economy: Safety and Privacy Considerations,” senators examined the potential opportunities UAVs could bring for commercial and scientific operations as well as the legal issues that must be addressed to ensure citizens’ privacy is protected.

UAV use is of particular interest in Alaska where, through a federal exception obtained by Begich, commercial UAV operations in the Arctic are permitted for the purposes of supporting oil and gas development.  Begich was pleased to see the first-ever commercial UAV use by Conoco-Phillips in uninhabited areas of the Arctic this summer.  There is also great interest in using UAVs to help gather the data needed to re-open fisheries that are closed in the western Aleutians to protect Steller sea lions, as well as for fighting forest fires and conducting pipeline surveys.    Begich was instrumental in getting the University of Alaska-Fairbanks named as one of six national UAV test sites by the FAA last month, as well as providing start-up funding for the University’s UAV center.  It is estimated the UAV test range in Alaska will generate up to 1,400 new jobs.

However, Begich agrees with privacy advocates that certain privacy principles must be considered before broadening UAV operations over populated areas. These principles include mandatory privacy policies governing UAV collection and use of data, prohibitions on surveillance of individuals by commercial and private entities, and bolstered Fourth Amendment protections against warrantless searches by law enforcement agencies using UAVs.

“With the appropriate safeguards in place, domestic applications of UAVs could help promote oil and gas development, enhance Arctic research and exploration, and even help fight wildfires,” said Begich. “Additionally, the Joint Pacific Alaska Training Range Complex is suited to be our nation’s premier military UAV training center. All these applications could be a boon to the economy and help public safety efforts in Alaska. But we must be vigilant about protecting Alaskans’ constitutional rights as we move forward.”

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