Think wine, not war, say drone-makers

Just like its Reaper and Predator cousins, it can scour remote hillsides for hours on end, relaying vital information back to base. But rather than the mountains of Afghanistan or Yemen, the Stardust drone is more likely to be found over the lush valleys of the southern United States.

Its mission is not to monitor cocaine plantations or hunt down drug lords, but to provide winemakers with up-to-date images of the state of their grapes.

“When people think of drones, they think of Hellfire missiles,” said Juan Sainz, head of Idetec Unmanned Systems, one of dozens of companies at this month’s annual drone industry conference in Washington. “One day, we want them to think of drones and think of Cabernet Sauvignon.”

The drone world’s answer to Farnborough International Airshow, the exhibition showcased an industry already worth billions of dollars in the US, and which has a future in everything from agriculture and media through to law-enforcement and transport.

In the military corner of the show were state-of-the-art killing machines such as the Reapers and Predators, the missile-carrying executioners that are now the leading weapons in the war on terrorism.

Elsewhere were the likes of the Stardust, a delicate-looking, bright orange device that looks like a child’s model -aircraft, and a variety of -”octocopters”, tiny eight-rotor helicopters that can hover in urban environments. In one form or another, such drones may soon be the default option for everything from crop-dusting and aerial cinema shots to watching for illegal immigrants at the US-Mexico border.

Last week, a German inventor unveiled a drone that can carry a defibrillator to heart-attack victims, reaching remote areas when activated by the emergency services or a mobile-phone app.

For now at least, officials are maintaining strict controls on the use of unmanned aircraft over America’s skies. Companies are banned from using drones for commercial purposes, and even police forces must pass strict tests before being granted a licence to deploy them. Remotely controlled aircraft must remain below 400ft, and cannot leave their operators’ line of sight.

But all of that is expected to change in 2015, the deadline that Congress has given the Federal Aviation Authority to figure out how to integrate unmanned aircraft into complex national airspaces.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which hosted the conference, predicts the industry will be worth about $80?billion by 2025.

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