Drones are not going away. Their reported ability to save money and lives over battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan make them a favored tool among military and intelligence circles.
Domestic institutions such as law enforcement agencies and the Department of Homeland Security have also seen the appeal, as well as private companies. The FAA estimates roughly 7,500 commercial drones could be in use within five years, all of them small craft.
The military is now looking to get more access to U.S. skies as it trains and prepares for new missions abroad, which experts say will pave the way for more commercial and private drones, causing some anxiety at home.
So is there a near future where a private company like FedEx can use drones to ship cargo?
"No, probably not," says Lance King, a retired Air Force colonel and Pentagon expert on what the military calls unmanned aerial systems.
However, the technology to do so is practically already here, he adds. The military is working with the FAA to change policies that limit how drones can fly in the nation's airspace, which King says could eventually extend to the civilian realm.
"Airplanes today are really almost all flown by autopilot. To be able to turn that autopilot on and off from a remote location is really just a dial link. It's not rocket science," he says.
Thousands of drones are coming home as the U.S. winds down wars abroad. The military counts more than 11,300 UAS of various sizes among its arsenal.
King and other members of the Pentagon's UAS task force have been working to figure out what drones could fly safely in the nation's skies. Congress has mandated the FAA develop a plan to safely integrate drones into U.S. airspace by Sept. 30, 2015.
"The reality is we need to be able to train with those systems, with those forces, and we can't always do that within restricted airspace," he says.
Public institutions such as the military must get special permission, called a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA), to operate outside of restricted airspace. FAA regulations mandate any such aircraft flying in the National Air Space must be able to "see and avoid other aircraft," which usually falls to the person or people piloting the aircraft from within. This gets tricky for an aircraft flying remotely.
"The biggest stumbling block is the word 'see,'" says King. If the military wanted to fly a UAS to a training ground outside of the restricted airspace over a military base, for example, these regulations mandate there must either be a line of spotters on the ground who are able to visually track the craft, or a manned chase plane to follow it.
The military is developing both ground- and airborne-based "sense and avoid" technology that the FAA could accept as a reasonable substitution for the "see rule."
The FAA declined to comment on what specifics they are looking for in a potential change to this regulation. It has commissioned six test ranges to study the integration of drones into the national airspace, and will finalize selection of these sites later this year.
There are 327 COAs as of February of this year, and the FAA continues to work with government agencies to make the process less cumbersome.
"We still have a long way to go, we still have a lot of policy that needs to be effective to do that smoothly," says King. "We're starting to have that discussion and undertake those challenges on both the FAA side and on ours."
That could begin to take effect as early as next year.
"There are some really interesting and promising technologies out there," says Capt. Sean Cassidy, first vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association International union. "We're surely not against it."
"It sounds a little odd for someone who represents airline pilots, but we embrace a lot of these technologies that are safety specific in their focus," he says. "It's just a matter of making sure these technologies are fully vetted and they don't try to ramrod these things into service until there is a very, very definitive safety case made for them that demonstrates they can operate every bit as safely as we do now."
The sense-and-avoid technologies show a lot of promise, he says, and will likely evolve to an extremely high level of accuracy. But they are not "ready for prime time right now."
There's a reason why the U.S. has the safest aircraft policies, he says, and those should not be degraded.
"Everything the FAA does is focused on ensuring the safety of the nation's aviation system," according to a spokesperson with the FAA. "Developing and implementing new UAS standards and guidance is a long-term effort and is highly dependent on technological advances to help provide the see and avoid capability."
"The changes in policy that will accompany the advances in technology to allow the unmanned aircraft pilot on the ground to sense or see other aircraft, will permit greater access to the National Airspace System for all users; not just the military," says the FAA, which does not allow attribution to spokespeople by email.
Before the 2015 deadline Congress gave the FAA to study drones, the Army plans to test a ground-based "sense and avoid" on the MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAS at Ft. Hood, Texas in March 2014.
King estimates the military will be able to test an airborne sense and avoid system by 2017.
Drones are also met with reticence from some lawmakers who do not believe the proliferation of UAS in American skies should be inevitable. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., made headlines in March when he staged an old-fashioned filibuster during John Brennan's nomination for CIA director. Paul demanded an answer from the Obama administration regarding U.S. policy toward fatal drone strikes against Americans on U.S. soil.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center has been one of the most vocal critics of the increased use of UAS by government and private organizations.
"When more drones are able to fly over the airspace, it's going to make aerial surveillance much easier to conduct," says Amie Stepanovich, director of EPIC's Domestic Surveillance Project.
"The problem with surveillance when it's easier and when it's cheaper is more of it takes places," she says. "We do see drones as being catalysts for more surveillance without additional protections in place."
Stepanovich supports the Department of Defense's involvement in resolving FAA policies toward drones, due largely to the military's extensive resources and experience with the issue. That will pave the way for a clearer discussion about protecting privacy, she says. "Specifically, when 2015 hits and the FAA is supposed to allow more of these vehicles in the airspace."
The military's use of UAS peaked in 2011 with almost 700,000 flight hours worldwide. This shrunk to just under 550,000 last year, and roughly 500,000 predicted for all of 2013. The Air Force has the highest usage, followed by the Army and the Navy and Marine Corps.
The military has five groups of UAS. The largest, Group 5, incorporates the RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper, both of which are roughly the size of a small manned plane and are designed to fly great distances. There are only 101 Reapers and 34 Global Hawks.
On the other end of the spectrum in Group 1 are the smaller UAS, such as the RQ-11 Raven and the Puma. These are designed to be lightweight and easily transportable, often used at the troop level for surveillance and reconnaissance. There are 1,137 Pumas and 7,680 Ravens, with which U.S. troops train foreign militaries.
In between are the mid-sized UAS such as the much-discussed Predator and RQ-7 Shadow.
No matter their size or use, drones continue to catch national attention, which King attributes largely to that very word, particularly when used in media reports such as this one.
It creates "a very specific picture," he says: "The big killer airplanes that have absolutely no mind or thought process. They're spying on anything and everyone and before you know it fury is going to rain down from the skies."
From a military perspective, that couldn't be further from the truth, he says. "They're a platform. They're a piece of equipment just like any other airplane."
King points to other aircraft, like the F-16 Falcon, which carries surveillance technology comparable to a drone, but does not elicit the same kind of instinctive call for Fourth Amendment rights, he says.