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Drone makers struggle for acceptance

Jason Walker of CyPhy

CHARLIE MAHONEY FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Jason Walker of CyPhy says the image of drones “flying around mindlessly doing some nefarious thing is not accurate.”

WASHINGTON — The Danvers-based drone manufacturer CyPhy Works doesn’t build flying robots that rain Hellfire missiles on people or record license plate numbers from 40,000 feet. Its drones are designed for peaceful missions — aerial inspections of buildings and bridges, or observing crime scenes.

But CyPhy and other manufacturers are battling the negative images of better-known military drones as they struggle to win public and political acceptance for commercially marketed drones for domestic airspace. The consequences are significant for a nascent industry that claims the potential to create 70,000 US jobs by 2017, including 2,000 in Massachusetts.

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The use of drones to combat terrorism overseas is attracting increasingly negative attention in Washington. President Obama is considering taking its lethal drone program away from the Central Intelligence Agency and placing it in the hands of the Pentagon, which has greater restrictions and accountability.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, including Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts, a candidate for Senate, are introducing legislation to limit how drones can be used by law enforcement, firefighters, farmers, the media, and others in American skies.

The domestic drone industry is scrambling to respond in Washington in public testimony, lobbying, and trade conferences — with limited effectiveness. Companies are trying to purge the word “drone’’ and its lethal connotations from the lexicon — an effort that is failing dismally so far.

Danvers-based CyPhy unveiled its first commercial drone models in December. CyPhy’s EASE drone, ideal for aerial inspections, fits into a backpack.

CHARLIE MAHONEY FOR THE GLOBE

Danvers-based CyPhy unveiled its first commercial drone models in December. CyPhy’s EASE drone, ideal for aerial inspections, fits into a backpack.

“I appreciate you telling us what we should call them. You leave that decision to us,” Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick J. Leahy snapped, as an industry association representative vainly sought to persuade senators at a hearing to use terms like “pilotless vehicle.’’

Founded in 2008, CyPhy unveiled its first commercial drone models in December. They are nothing like the American robotic weapons flying over Pakistan and Yemen. CyPhy’s EASE drone, ideal for aerial inspections, fits into a backpack, while the PARC model is tailored to longer-term observation of crime scenes or disaster areas.

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Other companies producing drones boast of firefighting capabilities and real-time weather analysis. The largest industry trade group — the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International — predicts that most manufacturing growth will be spurred by agriculture demand and law-enforcement work.

But civil liberties advocates unleashed a torrent of criticism last year when Congress mandated the Federal Aviation Administration to craft regulations for drone use in US skies by the end of 2015. Fears of unwarranted privacy violations, domestic spying, and even questions about armed attacks on US soil reached a crescendo this month and forced the industry into a defensive posture.

How those regulations are shaped will have a major impact on whether the market for domestically operated drones truly takes off.

Markey’s legislation, introduced last week, aims to prevent “flying robots from becoming spying robots,” a statement said. His legislation would not permit an FAA license unless the applicant discloses who will operate the drone, where it will be flown, what sort of data it will collect, how the data will be used, and whether the information will be sold to third parties.

Concern about the potential use of domestic drones reached its peak on March 6 when Kentucky Republican Rand Paul mounted a 13-hour filibuster on the Senate floor questioning the Obama administration’s ability to preemptively target American citizens suspected of terrorist activities.

“No American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found guilty by a court,” Paul declared.

The administration’s response — that it had no power to target citizens within US borders — didn’t end the argument, and start-up executives, and engineers and inventors around the country have been shocked by the depth of the controversy.

“It comes up in almost every conversation about the products and the company and the way forward,” CyPhy director of operations Jason Walker said. “The word [drone] has a lot to do with it. The idea that there are these robots flying around mindlessly doing some nefarious thing is not accurate. From a technical standpoint, it’s silly.”

Advocates of the fledgling domestic industry — ranging from biologists to border patrol agents — are now rallying resources to stem the tide of bad press.

“This happened so fast that it took all of us aback,” Stephen Ingley, director of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association, said at an unmanned systems conference in March in Arlington, Va.

He added that the industry doesn’t have the political clout or social foothold to shift the conversation from potential dangers to likely benefits.

To be sure, UAV proponents agree that privacy concerns are valid, acknowledging the potential for misuse among criminals, paparazzi, and government agencies. But they contend the anxiety is overblown, as drone sensors and cameras are no different than those used in manned aircraft.

“This is more than a pilotless vehicle,” Michael Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said at Leahy’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, convened to consider privacy risks. “There’s nothing unmanned about unmanned systems.’’

Though defense giants that produce military drones have been lobbying Congress for years, smaller start-ups and inventors began seeking to influence lawmakers’ opinions only in 2007. The Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, cochaired by Representatives Buck McKeon of California and Henry Cuellar of Texas, has grown to nearly 60 members. It aims to “educate” lawmakers on an industry that will “improve our lives as public acceptance progresses,” according to its website.

Caucus members have garnered nearly $8 million in campaign contributions from drone firms over the past four years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research organization that tracks money in government. The industry trade group, meanwhile, has doubled its lobbying expenditures to about $250,000 annually as Congress and government agencies craft regulations.

At a trade meeting held at a Virginia Tech research center last week, industry leaders discussed the need to increase public outreach to overcome drones’ cloak-and-dagger stigma.

Physical Sciences Inc. in Andover is among the firms making the transition from defense to domestic uses, tailoring drones for law enforcement agencies and anticipating a price tag of $1,000 or less, said Tom Vaneck, vice president of space technologies.

Though his firm hasn’t thought of a catchy replacement for the term UAV, it has begun discussing more proactive ways to laud everyday uses such as aiding first responders. Such efforts will probably target youth at the local level since “the younger generation is almost always more open to new technology,” he said.

“Let’s go to grade schools and have kids fly one of these things,’’ Vaneck said, “so it’s not the boogeyman anymore.”

Mary Cummings, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, said public suspicion will dissipate as the technology becomes more familiar. She’s one of the few in the industry who doesn’t mind the “drone’’ moniker.

“If that’s the name the public wants to call it, then let’s just make a real definition of it,” the former Navy fighter pilot said. Besides, she added, “it’s not a mouthful.”

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