By Andrea Shalal-Esa
PARIS (Reuters) - U.S. aerospace companies, keen to benefit from billions of dollars in possible future orders for civilian drones, are mobilizing to assuage public concerns about privacy and safety.
The Aerospace Industries Association, the U.S. industry's biggest lobbying group, released a new poll on Wednesday at the Paris Airshow, which showed that 54 percent of Americans favor use of drones for civilian purposes, including border patrol, weather prediction and disaster response.
Marion Blakey, former administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, and AIA's chief executive, said she was heartened by the poll, conducted by the Christian Science Monitor newspaper, but her industry needed to do a better job dispelling misperceptions about drones.
"We feel like there's been too much rhetoric about privacy concerns and things that aren't relevant to domestic use of unmanned aerial systems," Blakey told Reuters. "Nobody's talking about using militarized drones in U.S. civil airspace."
The U.S. government has used unmanned planes in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as, for targeted attacks of suspected terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen.
Federal Bureau of Investigations Director Robert Mueller testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that the FBI uses drones for surveillance on U.S. soil.
Many states and industry officials favor using drones for civilian purposes, but hurdles including regulatory approval and public skepticism remain.
Blakey said potential benefits were obscured by misperceptions of how remotely piloted planes would be used in the United States. AIA said the worldwide market for such unmanned planes would exceed $89 billion over the next decade.
She said it was important to explain what drones, or unmanned aerial systems (UAS), could or could not do, although she conceded that recent revelations of widespread domestic surveillance by the NSA could be "fogging" the issue.
"Surveillance by UAS will never be collecting anything like the kind of data that people are concerned about," she said. "That's not what you use them for."
The industry group said drones would provide benefits in: border protection, fighting wildfires, law enforcement surveillance, and search and rescue operations.
Such systems are already in use elsewhere helping to monitor flooding in the Czech Republic and contributing to wildlife conservation efforts in South Africa.
Concerns about use of drones for deadly strikes overseas and a growing mistrust of the federal government have prompted some U.S. towns and states to pass measures banning or limiting the use of unmanned aircraft, said Shahid Buttar, executive director of Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a non-profit watchdog group.
Charlottesville, Virginia passed a measure imposing a two-year moratorium on the use of drones, he said, adding other measures restricting their use have also been passed in Idaho, Texas and California.
Chris Raymond, head of business development for Boeing Co's defense division, cautioned against overstating privacy concerns, noting that 37 U.S. states had applied to host one of six unmanned aerial vehicle ranges to be set up by the FAA.
"I think (acceptance) will come over time," Raymond told Reuters at the air show. "It is a policy issue with a lot of emotion, and education has to occur on both sides of the issue."
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)