Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are no longer confined to the battlefield; soon enough, a civilian market will emerge and share the same airspace with manned commercial aircraft. Remotely operated and GPS-guided, these drones will help monitor storm systems, assist in search-and-rescue operations, track wildlife, survey power lines, deliver goods, broaden photographic possibilities, and trace wildfires.
This isn’t speculative; it’s inevitable, and not everyone is happy about it. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has until 2015 to develop regulations aimed at limiting the myriad privacy and safety concerns associated with UAVs. But given the vast potential of the tech, it’s difficult to anticipate exactly what the consumer drone market will look like.
“Part of the reason the skies haven’t opened up to private and corporate use of drones yet is because the FAA has been so concerned about safety,” says Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital privacy advocacy group. “Drones currently don’t have any means of seeing objects around them.”
UAV advocates counter that remote -sensing technology, which is progressing rapidly, will allow drones to autonomously detect and avoid objects. Systems will become lighter, safer and smarter, featuring the ability to automatically sense the location of walls, buildings and aircraft.
Scott McTavish, president of Accuas, a Canadian UAV land-surveying company, says the miniaturization of drone sensors is critical to the market’s success.
“I think the sense-and-avoid technology and the advancement of sensor technology are really going to advance the industry,” he says.
But lighter, smarter drones are not going to prevent enterprising troublemakers from corrupting the original intent of the technology. Last year, a research team at the University of Texas-Austin demonstrated how the GPS signals guiding a UAV could be hacked and rerouted from the ground — a potentially dangerous trend in the GPS community known as “spoofing.”