BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – HONOLULU — Hawaii officials have a unique take on aerial drones — bring ‘em on.
“Drones could be a game changer for us,” state Rep. Gene Ward, R-Hawaii Kai, said.
The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to develop testing grounds for domestic drones, and Hawaii is among 37 states hoping to be one of six sites to host the pilot project.
“Hawaii does not want to change anything,” Ward said. “We rely on our good looks. But we also need to rely on our intelligence.”
The lawmaker said there is a market for commercial drone use that could bring millions into the Hawaii economy, especially if companies don’t have to struggle through the state’s notorious government red tape.
Officials in Hawaii say they hope to team up with Alaska and Oregon to test drones in all climates and terrains.
Drones really aren’t new in the island state. The U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division’s 2nd Stryker Brigade and its 3rd Infantry Brigade based at Schofield Barracks and Wheeler Air Force Base on Oahu use more than 100 drones in their surveillance and reconnaissance operations. The Hawaii Air Guard has another 24 drones that fly over some of Hawaii’s key military bases.
Many residents are skeptical of drones flying through Hawaiian skies because of their lethal reputation, and they fear loss of privacy. The eyes in the sky can be outfitted with facial recognition software, thermal imaging cameras, microphones and license plate readers.
Senate Minority Leader Sam Slom, R-Hawaii Kai-Diamond Head, introduced Senate Bill 783 during the 2013 legislative session to limit how gathered data can be used.
The proposal also requires the military to annually report the type of data collected and its disposition. After being assigned to the transportation, public safety and judiciary committees, the bill failed to get a hearing.
“Technically this bill, which is still alive in the 2014 legislative session that begins in mid-January, creates a new chapter for unmanned aerial vehicles,” Slom said. “I am not into conspiracy theories or anything else, but because drones are proliferating and there are potentials for wrongdoing, there should be limitations and reporting on their use.”
Senate Public Safety and Military Affairs Chair Will Espero, who recently said he plans to run for the 1st Congressional District seat in 2014, said commercial use of drones will help the state’s economy diversify, bring millions of dollars into Hawaii’s economy and create more high-paying jobs.
Espero said drones can be used for search-and-rescue operations, emergency preparedness, fishing, atmospheric research and more. But officials would have to address how drones could be used in high-population areas, who would be allowed to operate drones and who would be in charge of enforcement.
Ted Ralston, an ex-aerospace industry executive, agrees that Hawaii’s economy could get a boost from a commercial drone industry and investors who believe there is a path to profit.
One important aspect is creating analytical software that can turn data collected into something useable, Ralston said. He stressed the importance of universities training the state’s workforce to be ready to serve the burgeoning industry.
The FAA strictly regulates the use of drones in Hawaii airspace, so much so that the state Department of Transportation can’t get approval to fly a drone it purchased in 2010 for $75,000.
DOT wanted to fly the drone over Honolulu Harbor to protect it from potential terrorist activity, but failed to ask permission from the FAA until it received inquiries from Hawaii Reporter in 2010 and again in January 2011.
The FAA subsequently denied the request because of heavy air traffic in the area.
The FAA then told the state the drone couldn’t be deployed in the crowded airspace adjacent to Honolulu International Airport and Hickam Air Force Base.
The drone had already been built, so a state Department of Transportation spokesperson said the state had to accept it.
Right now, the drone sits in the DOT Harbor headquarters as state officials ponder whether to sell the aging drone or continue to wait for FAA approval that may never come.