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Drones transformed the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan. But their use has been extremely limited in U.S. skies. The Federal Aviation Administration essentially bans the commercial use of drones, and government use is still highly restricted.
But that's changing.
For a long time, drones, which are formally known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, were exotic, expensive and out of reach for all but military users. Today, however, a clever hobbyist can have his own eye in the sky.
That's the case for Andreas Oesterer and Mark Harrison. On a recent weekend, the two hobbyists are flying their collection of hi-tech toys over Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley, Calif.
With a little push, a homemade UAV takes off into the sky. The fixed-wing plane they've launched is definitely unarmed. In fact, it looks like a simple remote-control plane you might find at RadioShack.
But as Oesterer flies his plane around the park, it becomes obvious how much power is available for a couple thousand dollars.
Using a control box, he puts the plane on autopilot, and it begins to follow a lazy, predetermined path around the park. It's smart enough to stay airborne on its own, and it's outfitted with a camera that provides a wide view of this bayside park.
Oesterer then dons homemade video goggles. In order to block out glare from the sun, he's wrapped some gray foam around them, so he looks like some sort of welder from the future.
Instantly, it's as if he's in the pilot's seat, 100 or so feet up in the air, looking down on us. As the small plane passes above, Oesterer can see the tops of our heads through the goggles.
Manned And Unmanned Vehicles Converging
Hobbyists like Oesterer are excited about the technology, as are the big companies that have been working on it for years. John Langford, chief executive of Aurora Flight Sciences, which makes components for military UAVs, has been designing drones for scientists for decades.
"I think the distinction between a manned and an unmanned airplane is arbitrary and vanishing, honestly," Langford says.
But right now, the FAA treats manned and unmanned vehicles completely differently. If you want to fly a manned plane, you just have to file a flight plan. For unmanned vehicles, you have to get special authorization from the FAA, and commercial use is still not allowed.
But new legislation says the FAA must reduce that divide over the next few years. Langford says these vehicles will soon be part of our lives.
"The civilian market will emerge," he says. "It will happen."
A Tool For Police
But why are drones needed at home in the U.S.? For years, scientists have found them useful — for doing air sampling, for example. But now, police departments in big cities like Miami to not-so-big places like Mesa County, in rural western Colorado see these vehicles as the next cool tool, from
Ben Miller has an unusual job title in Mesa, which includes the city of Grand Junction: He's the "unmanned aircraft program officer" for the Mesa County Sheriff's Office.
The agency has two small camera-equipped drones. They came in handy recently for a fairly basic function: gathering evidence after extensive vandalism at a public school.
"We went out and were able to fly over the damaged area, and took a series of still images," Miller says. The pictures have been useful in prosecuting the crime.
Search-and-rescue teams also see great potential in drones. Miller says one of his department's drones recently helped wayward hikers. They were lost, but it wasn't a life-or-death situation.
"We probably wouldn't have been able to justify the expenses to put in manned aviation [such as a helicopter]," Miller says. "But now that we're flying for $25 an hour, it's kind of a no-brainer for us."
A Threat To Privacy?
But for others, the specter of unmanned aerial systems patrolling the homeland has sparked a call to arms.
Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer recently called for a ban on drones in the U.S. Speaking on Fox News, Krauthammer said, "And I would predict — I'm not encouraging, but I'm predicting — the first guy who uses a Second Amendment weapon to bring a drone down that's been hovering over his house is going to be a folk hero in this country."
The suggestion that drones need to be shot down alarmed the UAV industry.
After years of selling its wares to the military, these companies are desperately trying to depict the next generation of domestic drones as friendly, more like "Robby the Robot" than HAL, the computer antagonist of Arthur C. Clarke's Space Odyssey novels and the films based on them.
But you can't blame people for getting the wrong idea if online ads pitching drones to law enforcement are anything to go by.
One comes from Aerovironment, a California-based company preparing to sell smaller drones to police. In the video, cops pull the small unmanned plane out of their cruiser's trunk, quickly assemble it and use it to monitor the movements of an armed suspect.
While a driving guitar serves as soundtrack, the police use the UAV's camera to see that the bad guy is setting up an ambush. Thanks to aerial surveillance, the cops outmaneuver the villain, cuff him and take him away.
While police are eager to keep an eye on criminals, civil liberties groups warn that these devices are tailor-made to spy on ordinary citizens.
Jennifer Lynch with the Electronic Frontier Foundation says many police departments plan to use drones to photograph public gatherings, just as they do with helicopters.
"With the advent of facial recognition and the ability to store images for a long period of time, it becomes really worrisome when you have a drone hovering over that sort of situation," she says. "And it's not clear what sort of legal restrictions would prevent that activity."
Lynch and others say that now is the time to pass legislation to limit drone use by police, before it becomes commonplace.
But fans of unmanned aviation caution that more restrictions could stifle innovation. Right now, there are thousands of small companies in this field. And hobbyists like Harrison in California, whose day job is at Pixar, see the drone era as the next frontier, as a marketplace that could power the next economic boom.
"I personally think that it's going to be a lot like the PC industry in the 1970s," he predicts. "There were just dozens or hundreds of little itty-bitty companies trying to fill the various niches."