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'Drone Caucus' members awash in industry cash 

click to enlarge dronejpg

RS-16 UAV flown under the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Initiative at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

Over the past four years members of the Congressional drone caucus, which continues to push for open U.S. skies for unmanned aerial vehicles, have drawn nearly $8 million in campaign contributions from drone makers, according to a new investigation from Hearst Newspapers and the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Drone-related companies have used the 60-member drone caucus, or the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, to lobby their interests in Washington, hoping to grease their entry into a domestic market that could run in the billions, according to the new report. Texas'  7 drone-caucus members – including El Paso's Silvestre Reyes, Austin's Michael McCaul, and Corpus Christi's Blake Farenthold – have raked in more than $746,000 in contributions from the drone industry. Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo alone received $77,000. Top earner of the whole bunch was drone caucus chairman and GOP Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon of California, who has received over $833,000 from drone companies.

In February Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which requires the FAA set up a timetable to fully integrate drones into national airspace systems by 2015.

At least 18 police departments, universities and government agencies have secured federal clearance to launch UAVs, according to documents unearthed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation this year. According to Hearst and the CRP, the FAA remains flooded with applications to approve drones. Perhaps a harbinger of things to come, those applications range anywhere from law enforcement to private companies, including the celebrity gossip site TMZ. The applicants seek approval to use drones the size of a hummingbird all the way up to the full-sized aircraft the CIA has used for extra-judicial killings under the Obama administration (300 drone strikes, some 2,500 people killed, by latest numbers).

Weary of what the wide use of drones could lead to government spying, Texas GOP Congressman Ted Poe filed legislation this year to put restrictions on how and when law enforcement agencies could legally sic drones on American citizens.  -- Michael Barajas

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