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U.S. industry touts 'drone' promise as public debate flares

An X-47B pilot-less drone combat aircraft is launched for the first time off an aircraft carrier, the USS George H. W. Bush, in the Atlantic
An X-47B pilot-less drone combat aircraft is launched for the first time off an aircraft carrier, the USS George H. W. Bush, in the Atlantic

By Andrea Shalal-Esa

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Public backlash against deadly overseas drone strikes may undermine promising uses of such technology for anything from disaster response to mail delivery, a top U.S. industry group said as it launched a lobbying effort to "demystify" unmanned planes.

The Aerospace Industries Association wants to prevent misperceptions and regulatory roadblocks from cutting into a market it says could be worth $89 billion over the next decade, according to a report the trade group will release on Thursday.

The report comes as President Barack Obama on Thursday is expected to lay out the rationale for U.S. drone strikes in a major speech on why the strikes are "necessary, legal and just.

"Until public discussion moves beyond misnomers and false assumptions about unmanned system, it will be difficult to advance substantive policy changes that enable growth of this highly beneficial technology," the AIA report said.

U.S. government sources told Reuters on Monday that the Pentagon would take over some drone operations run by the CIA, a move that could increase congressional oversight of such missions.

Separately, Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday said four U.S. citizens were killed in drone strikes in Yemen and elsewhere, news that could stoke further controversy.

Responding to mounting backlash, aerospace spokesman Dan Stohr said lawmakers need to be more aware of how unmanned systems could be used for everything from border patrol to weather forecasting and boosting agricultural production, or even locating stranded hikers, and be able to separate fact from "science fiction."

"The notion that we're going to have armed drones in the U.S. national air space is just a total misnomer," Stohr said.

The AIA report, which kicks off a major industry lobbying effort, had been in the works for a month and was not timed to coincide with Obama's speech, Stohr added.

DRONE MAKERS EYE CIVILIAN MARKET

Northrop Grumman Corp, which builds the high-flying Global Hawk spy plane and the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, Boeing Co, and other drone makers are counting on civil and foreign sales for continued growth in the unmanned plane segment as U.S. defense spending starts to decline.

Dennis Muilenburg, president of Boeing's defense division, which builds the smaller Scan Eagle unmanned system but has also developed a high-altitude drone, told analysts on Wednesday that his company saw unmanned systems as a growth area.

Boeing, Northrop and Lockheed Martin Corp all plan to compete for a U.S. Navy contract to build a new unmanned combat plane that can land on an aircraft carrier - one of few new military aircraft development programs being launched in the current tough budget environment.

The U.S. government flies more than 1 million unmanned flight hours each year and the Pentagon operates more than 7,000 unmanned aircraft, according to the AIA report, which estimated that spending would nearly double to $11.4 billion a year over the next decade.

Privately held General Atomics builds the Predator and armed Reaper unmanned planes used for counterterrorism operations.

Northrop's unmanned X-47B demonstration aircraft last week became the first unmanned plane to be launched off an aircraft carrier. On Wednesday, the company's MQ-4C Triton, the U.S. Navy's version of the Global Hawk, made its first flight in Palmdale, California.

Northrop spokesman Randy Belote said the pair of "firsts" showed the depth and breadth of Northrop's unmanned portfolio. He said military commanders continued to clamor for surveillance and reconnaissance data, which unmanned planes were ideally suited to provide.

The U.S. military's pivot to Asia, with its vast expanses of land and oceans, would only strengthen that demand, even as the U.S. military reduced its use of drones in Iraq and Afghanistan, Belote said.

The AIA report said unmanned planes used for border patrol and other civilian uses faced obstacles to growth, among them inadequate allocation of bands on the electromagnetic spectrum for radio communications and a lack of guidelines for integrating drones into U.S. air space.

Outdated missile control rules also made it difficult to export unmanned planes, the group said.

It also raised concerns about a growing number of states and communities that have passed laws banning or restricting the use of unmanned planes due to privacy concerns.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Ros Krasny and Lisa Shumaker)

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