Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are most commonly referred to as drones, but other names such as “killer robot” and “Big Brother in the sky” have surfaced. Regardless of what they’re called, one thing is clear: drones are here to stay and will increasingly be used for nonmilitary, domestic applications.
The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that there will be 30,000 drones in U.S. airspace within the next 20 years (PDF). The news of future drone proliferation has sparked controversy and among many Americans who have legitimate safety and privacy concerns, but narrowly view drones as either spying or overseas killing machines. Although legislative and regulatory oversight is warranted, an onslaught of drone regulation isn’t, and it could cause setbacks in an industry that has the potential to usher in significant benefits to the economy and everyday lives of Americans.
As a former Army intelligence officer who frequently utilized drones, I originally shared the same narrow concerns about their dangers and potential menace. I mainly viewed them as counterterrorism and law-enforcement tools that were used in one of two ways: for surveillance purposes or for lethal affects. However, it’s clear that drones have other applications. Private parties have been authorized to use drones for experimental purposes, including some universities that are developing new methods of monitoring agriculture. Another use involves conducting missions that serve the public interest—e.g., search-and-rescue, Border Patrol, and firefighting missions. In fact, NASA has used already drones to monitor hurricanes, and during the recent fire at Yosemite National Park in California, a drone was used to track the blaze’s path.
It’s currently illegal to fly drones over major urban areas or use them for commercial purposes, but if and when that changes, drones might be used for everyday tasks like transporting equipment, people, and possibly your online Amazon purchases.
The first major obstacle to introducing drones for routine domestic use is concerns about the danger posed by malfunctions and crashes. The FAA already regulates the industry, like it does for commercial aircraft, and it manages safety risks by requiring drone operators to apply for certification. These certificates usually expire after two years and come with specific requirements like registering with air-traffic control, flying below a certain altitude, and flying only during daylight hours in some cases.
Drones can be used for everyday tasks like transporting equipment, people, and your Amazon purchases.
As of early 2013, there were more than 300 active Certificates of Waiver or Authorization. Next the FAA will establish six test sites across the country to conduct a full evaluation of how drones can be safely integrated into available airspace.