By JOAN LOWY, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Heads up: Drones are going mainstream.
Civilian cousins of the unmanned military aircraft that have tracked and killed terrorists in the Middle East and Asia are in demand by police departments, border patrols, power companies, news organizations and others wanting a bird's-eye view that's too impractical or dangerous for conventional planes or helicopters to get.
Along with the enthusiasm, there are qualms.
Drones overhead could invade people's privacy. The government worries they could collide with passenger planes or come crashing down to the ground, concerns that have slowed more widespread adoption of the technology.
Despite that, pressure is building to give drones the same access as manned aircraft to the sky at home.
"It's going to be the next big revolution in aviation. It's coming," says Dan Elwell, the Aerospace Industries Association's vice president for civil aviation.
Some impetus comes from the military, which will bring home drones from Afghanistan and wants room to test and use them. In December, Congress gave the Federal Aviation Administration six months to pick half a dozen sites around the country where the military and others can fly unmanned aircraft in the vicinity of regular air traffic, with the aim of demonstrating they're safe.
The Defense Department says the demand for drones and their expanding missions requires routine and unfettered access to domestic airspace, including around airports and cities. In a report last October, the Pentagon called for flights first by small drones both solo and in groups, day and night, expanding over several years. Flights by large and medium-sized drones would follow in the latter half of this decade.
Other government agencies want to fly drones, too, but they've been hobbled by an FAA ban unless they first receive case-by-case permission. Fewer than 300 waivers were in use at the end of 2011, and they often include restrictions that severely limit the usefulness of the flights. Businesses that want to put drones to work are out of luck; waivers are only for government agencies.
But that's changing.
Congress has told the FAA that the agency must allow civilian and military drones to fly in civilian airspace by September 2015. This spring, the FAA is set to take a first step by proposing rules that would allow limited commercial use of small drones for the first time.
Until recently, agency officials were saying there were too many unresolved safety issues to give drones greater access. Even now FAA officials are cautious about describing their plans and they avoid discussion of deadlines.
"Our big concern is ensuring that as these get introduced into (civilian airspace) the system is safe," Michael Huerta, FAA's administrator, said. "What we're hearing from the Congress and the industry is, 'This technology is evolving quickly and we don't want the FAA to be too cautious so as to hold up technological innovation.' "
But there is no question that the FAA must find a way to accommodate this new class of aircraft, he said.
"Not that long ago some in aviation viewed the whole unmanned aircraft thing as kind of a passing fad. I think we're all beyond that now," Huerta said. "Everyone recognizes that the technology has developed and ... these things are really a permanent part of the aviation industry."
Drones come in all sizes, from the high-flying Global Hawk with its 116-foot wingspan to a hummingbird-like drone that weighs less than an AA battery and can perch on a window ledge to record sound and video. Lockheed Martin has developed a fake maple leaf seed, or "whirly bird," equipped with imaging sensors, that weighs less than an ounce.
Potential civilian users are as varied as the drones themselves.
Power companies want them to monitor transmission lines. Farmers want to fly them over fields to detect which crops need water. Ranchers want them to count cows.
Journalists are exploring drones' newsgathering potential. The FAA is investigating whether The Daily, a digital publication of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., used drones without permission to capture aerial footage of floodwaters in North Dakota and Mississippi last year. At the University of Nebraska, journalism professor Matt Waite has started a lab for students to experiment with using a small, remote-controlled helicopter.