"The U.S. has been at the lead of this technology a long time," he said. "If our government holds back this technology, there's the freedom to move elsewhere ... and all of a sudden these things will be flying everywhere else and competing with us."
Since January, drone-related legislation has been introduced in more than 30 states, largely in response to privacy concerns. Many of the bills are focused on preventing police from using drones for broad public surveillance, as well as targeting individuals for surveillance without sufficient grounds to believe they were involved in crimes.
Law enforcement is expected to be one of the bigger initial markets for civilian drones. Last month, the FBI used drones to maintain continuous surveillance of a bunker in Alabama where a 5-year-old boy was being held hostage.
In Virginia, the state General Assembly passed a bill that would place a two-year moratorium on the use of drones by state and local law enforcement. The measure is supported by groups as varied as the American Civil Liberties Union on the left and the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation on the right.
Gov. Bob McDonnell is proposing amendments that would retain the broad ban on spy drones but allow specific exemptions when lives are in danger, such as for search-and rescue operations. The legislature reconvenes on April 3 to consider the amendments.
"Any legislation that restricts the use of this kind of capability to serve the public is putting the public at risk," said Steve Gitlin, vice president of AeroVironment, a leading maker of smaller drones, including some no bigger than a hummingbird
Seattle abandoned its drone program after community protests in February. The city's police department had purchased two drones through a federal grant without consulting the city council.