Heads up: Drones are going mainstream.
Civilian cousins of the unmanned military aircraft that have tracked and killed terrorists in the Middle East and Asia are in demand by US police departments, border patrols, power companies, news organisations and others wanting a birdís-eye view thatís too impractical or dangerous for conventional planes or helicopters to get. Along with the enthusiasm, there are qualms.
Drones overhead could invade peopleís privacy. The government worries they could collide with passenger planes or come crashing down to the ground, concerns that have slowed more widespread adoption of the technology. Yet, pressure is building to give drones the same access as manned aircraft to US skies.
ďItís going to be the next big revolution in aviation,íí says Dan Elwell, the Aerospace Industries Associationís vice-president for civil aviation. Some impetus comes from the military, which will bring home drones from Afghanistan and wants room to use them. In December, Congress gave the Federal Aviation Administration six months to pick half a dozen sites around the country where unmanned aircraft can be flown in the vicinity of regular air traffic, to demonstrate theyíre safe.
The Defence Department says demand for drones requires unfettered access to domestic airspace. Last October, the Pentagon called for flights first by small drones, day and night, expanding over the years. Flights by larger drones would follow in the latter half of this decade.
Other government agencies want to fly drones, too, but theyíve been hobbled by an FAA ban unless they first receive case-by-case permission. Fewer than 300 waivers were in use at the end of 2011. But thatís changing. Congress has told the FAA that the agency must allow civilian and military drones to fly in civilian airspace by September 2015.
Potential civilian users are as varied. Power firms want them to monitor transmission lines. Farmers want to fly them over fields to detect which crops need water. Ranchers want them to count cows. Journalists are exploring dronesí newsgathering potential. The FAA is investigating whether The Daily, a digital publication of Rupert Murdochís News Corp., used drones without permission to capture aerial footage of floodwaters