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Do we know what we're getting into with drones?

Why must values always take a back seat to the headlong rush of developing technology? ("Md. sees a future in the rise of unmanned aircraft," Aug. 14.)

Sure, the creation of these new jobs in a sagging economy (1,050 jobs at AAI alone over the last decade) looks good to the state and to the nation. But look at the down sides: While drones have, over foreign turf (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, for example), killed targeted insurgents, they have also taken the lives of noncombatant men, women and children. Then there was the crash in June of an RQ-4A Global Hawk on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Now the push is on for unmanned aircraft to fly over the U.S. Uses for monitoring traffic, watching borders, tracking wildfires and observing weather are on the table. It's just a matter of time until law enforcement reveals plans to use the drones. Steven Reid of AAI says, "the technology almost drives itself into the marketplace." Mike Hayes, retired general and head of Maryland's office of military and federal affairs, says the industry will "grow exponentially." He goes on to state — and red flags should go up here — "then, as the [Federal Aviation Administration] comes to grips with aerospace issues and safety associated with unmanned systems, the potential for growth is even more dramatic."

Time out — you don't wait until the train is hurtling down the tracks to figure out how it's going to operate. The questions raised by this technology explosion had better be asked by Americans and dealt with now, before this train is a runaway.

First and most basic — do we even want unmanned aircraft flying across skies of the U.S., for whatever purposes? If so, and assuming the FAA would govern their use, how could that agency ensure that our citizens' rights to safety and privacy are protected? A thoughtful Sun essay by Jeffrey Ross ("Drones are different," June 20) asked questions we need to address as a nation: "What is acceptable, and what will never be? What are we willing to give up in order to be safe?" (I saw no public response to the article!)

The administration needs to establish and promote an open forum to hear public concerns about drones — both the opportunities and the considerable risks they present. It should also discuss the morality of continuing the use of them to assassinate insurgents overseas. Following this forum, the president should select a commission to investigate, summarize findings and draw up strict and specific guidelines as to whether and how unmanned aircraft may be used. Rather than submit this document to an intractable Congress, the president should simply make it law through an executive order. It's that important.

Bruce R. Knauff, Towson

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