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Drone Industry in Florida Sees FAA Decision as Only Slight Setback

Although the state lost a bid last week to become a federal testing ground for drones, Florida officials spun the loss as only a temporary setback.

The drone invasion of Florida has been postponed, but probably not for long.

Although the state lost a bid last week to become a federal testing ground for drones, Florida officials spun the loss as only a temporary setback and said the Sunshine State already is on its way to becoming a hub for unmanned aircraft, better known as drones.

"Florida is committed to developing the capabilities and the environment for this industry to come here, operate here and thrive here," said Frank DiBello, president of Space Florida.

The quasi-state agency spent about $1.4 million last year in the hope that the Federal Aviation Administration would choose Florida as one of six sites the FAA would use to practice flying drones in U.S. airspace.

Once largely a military tool, drones increasingly are seen as a valuable resource for business. Compared with helicopters and airplanes, they're cheap to build and fly. Even small drones can handle jobs such as monitoring crops for a farmer or photographing homes for a real-estate agent. One industry study estimated that the drone business could have an economic impact of more than $82 billion nationwide by 2025.

Although Florida lost its chance to be an FAA test site -- to applicants in Alaska and Nevada, among others -- DiBello and other backers said the decision is hardly a mortal blow.

The sites that won can begin drone flights as soon as this summer, but the FAA award doesn't include any federal funding. Nor does it place any significant restrictions on states looking to independently nurture their own drone industries.

As before, drone developers can apply for certificates to conduct experimental flights at places such as Cape Canaveral, where airspace is restricted. And local law-enforcement agencies can get approval for their own drone flights.

The main difference, said FAA officials and industry representatives, is that the six test sites will have an early edge in getting drone flights approved in their regions -- including the possibility of commercial flights.

"It's an opportunity in this new field," said Ben Gielow, a top executive with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a booster group for the drone business.

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Flying drones for commercial purposes is essentially barred, with a small exception for flights in the Arctic by energy companies looking to drill. But the FAA wants to open U.S. airspace to more drone flights, and it's using the six test sites to determine the safest way to do it -- as well as how to deal with privacy concerns.

That's a familiar issue in Florida. Last year, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a measure that requires police to get a warrant before using drones except in extreme cases, such as an imminent threat of terrorism.

Though there was some worry that the law would hurt Florida's bid, DiBello dismissed that concern and said the state was waiting for a debriefing by the FAA to learn why it wasn't chosen.

In the meantime, civil-rights groups urged state legislators to remain vigilant.

"Someday in the not-too-distant future, drones may be commonplace in our skies. Before they are, it is incumbent on state legislators in the test-site states -- and other states as well -- to put in place a system of rules to ensure that we can take advantage of drone technology without becoming a 'surveillance society,' " wrote Allie Bohm, an ACLU strategist, in response to the FAA announcement.

Even so, industry executives are hoping that commercial drones, possibly even delivery drones similar to those proposed by founder Jeff Bezos, could be allowed within the next few years. Gielow said Florida is hardly out of the running for snagging this business.

The state is home to at least 23 drone companies as well as several colleges tied to the industry, such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. Gielow said his group plans to hold a major conference in Orlando in May, which should bring more attention to the state.

Drones already have gained a foothold in the state. At least two law-enforcement agencies -- the Miami-Dade Police Department and Orange County Sheriff's Office -- have bought drones, though a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office said last week that the department's two drones still were in the testing phase and weren't yet being used operationally.

Meanwhile, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has maintained a small drone base at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station since 2010 to help the agency with marine surveillance and anti-smuggling operations.

The Space Coast region was billed as a trump card in Space Florida's bid to the FAA. With a large swath of restricted airspace around Kennedy Space Center, the area is well-suited for experimental flights.

"Florida is well-positioned and will continue to move forward," said Bryan da Frota, CEO of Prioria Robotics of Gainesville, which builds small surveillance drones.

(c)2014 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)