Minn. Wants Dollars, Not Defense as Drone Test Site

Updated: 06/03/2013 8:29 PM KSTP.com By: Mark Albert

Unmanned aircraft, commonly referred to as "drones," are being used to hunt terrorists around the world and back up US military forces on the battlefield.

And soon smaller versions could be in the skies over Minnesota.

The state is competing against 36 other states to host one of a half dozen test sites for drones.

But it's not the State Patrol, Minneapolis Police, or the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension that took the lead in applying to the FAA.

It's the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

The state agency that tracks employment and helps the unemployed says it applied not with an eye toward defense, but dollars - the hope that an economic windfall would follow unmanned aircraft to Minnesota soil.

A study cited by DEED that was conducted by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a group which promotes drone use, estimated $142 million in economic impact in Minnesota between 2015-2017, 730 jobs created, and more than $1.68 million in taxes generated because of the integration of unmanned drones into domestic uses.

Farmers could use drones to prepare for planting season, for example; transportation planners could plot new ways to cope with traffic; and police could use them to find a missing child or track crime.

The other agencies partnering with DEED on the application are: MnDOT, Duluth International Airport, Monaco Air, Morrison County Community Development, MnSCU, U of M UAV Laboratory, MSU Mankato Aviation, Northland Community and Technical College Aerospace program.

But the continuing controversy about the use of armed drones by the US overseas, however, is shadowing the domestic expansion.

While the FAA sought public comment during an online "public engagement session" Wednesday, Minnesota Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison held his own forum in North Minneapolis, where more than a hundred people showed up, most wearing "End the War" stickers and holding "Stop the Wars, Ground the Drones" flyers promoting a Saturday rally and march in Minneapolis.

"These folks are worried about their country having a 'kill list' with civilians, maybe even Americans, being killed without any due process or transparency," Ellison told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS in an interview.

Congress is debating whether a special drone court is needed before an unmanned aircraft could kill an American citizen suspected of terrorism.

When asked by a reporter whether he would support unarmed, unmanned aircraft use in Minnesota for domestic and economic purposes, Rep. Ellison answered: "I don't know."

"We'd have to make sure that those materials weren't being used to spy on private citizens or do 'peeping tom' moves on people's homes," Ellison said.

"We as Americans need to make sure the rules that go along with this technology keep up with the technology."