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December 16, 2013

Okla. seeking drone payload

STILLWATER — Whether it’s in the skies above Oklahoma State University or the Fort Sill Army Post in the southwest part of the state, unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, are becoming more commonplace over Oklahoma as the state positions itself to become a hotbed for this booming sector of the aerospace industry.

Eighteen Oklahoma-based companies already are actively engaged in the industry, OSU has an established graduate program in unmanned aerial systems, and the state is competing with about two dozen others to become one of six federally designated test sites for the drone industry.

“My job as governor is to help aerospace and defense continue to thrive in Oklahoma,” Gov. Mary Fallin said in a statement. “Unmanned Aerial Systems are a key component to future growth and job creation in these industries.”

But with state government pushing to fill the Oklahoma skies with a wide variety of these buzzing vehicles, some civil rights activists are pushing for restrictions on how drones can be used, especially by local law enforcement conducting surveillance.

“Our biggest concern is the use of drones for suspicionless surveillance of Oklahomans,” said Ryan Kiesel, the director of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Our top priority is to ensure that the government, before they use drones for surveillance purposes, have probable cause.”

A bill that would prohibit putting weapons on drones and limit their use for surveillance on citizens without a warrant passed a House committee last year, but was temporarily shelved at Fallin’s request to protect the state’s application to the Federal Aviation Administration to become a designated drone test site. A decision on those six sites is expected to be announced at the end of the month, and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, said he intends to push the measure again next year.

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