WASHINGTON - Thousands of unmanned aircraft systems - commonly known as drones - could be buzzing around in U.S. airspace by 2015 because of a law passed last year, aiding in police investigations, scientific research and border control, but also raising safety and privacy concerns among some lawmakers and advocacy groups.
Already, drones are in use to count sea lions in Alaska, to conduct weather and environmental research, and to monitor drug trafficking across our borders. In fact, 327 drones already have been licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly over U.S. soil.
But the FAA expects that number to increase to 30,000 by 2020, fueling what could become a $90 billion industry.
The drones used domestically bear little resemblance to the war machines making headlines overseas; the drones being flown in the United States often look more like toys, and none carries weapons.
The 2012 law, called the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, contains a seven-page provision - known as the Drone Act - requiring the FAA to fully integrate unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System by September 2015. Additionally, the Drone Act allows law enforcement agencies, including local police forces, to buy and use unmanned aircraft for evidence gathering and surveillance.
Leonard Montgomery, a police captain in North Little Rock, Ark., said his department hopes to use its drones for surveillance of high-crime neighborhoods.
"Mobile drones will be able to quickly move to get a better perspective," he said. "They're both faster and more flexible than any other forms of surveillance."
The department has one unmanned aircraft now, an SR30 helicopter-type drone that can only be flown over unpopulated areas while it awaits FAA rules for use over the more populated cities.
"They will only be used in public areas where people have no expectation of privacy," Montgomery said. "We're not flying at low levels looking into your bedroom windows."
Mario Mairena, spokesman for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which lobbies on behalf of the drone industry, said drones can provide assistance to first responders in search and rescue missions and during or after natural or manmade disasters, and they also can aid in scientific research.
Unmanned aircraft can be equipped with infrared cameras, allowing responders to identify the heat signature of a body underneath a bank of snow on a mountain or under a pile of rubble.
Researchers are also using drones. For example, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks uses them to monitor sea lions, because the animals retreat under water when approached by larger and louder manned craft.
Mairena also outlined potential commercial uses for unmanned aircraft. Farmers, he said, want to use unmanned aircraft for crop dusting and disease detection, while oil and gas companies want to use drones to inspect rigs and pipelines. Hollywood, too, wants to get its hands on unmanned aircraft to capture innovative camera shots and save money on manned aircraft costs.
A company called Darwin Aerospace has even developed the Burrito Bomber, a drone equipped to carry and drop a parachute-wrapped burrito, which it calls "truly the world's first airborne Mexican food delivery service."
Transitioning drones into domestic airspace has raised safety and privacy concerns. The unmanned vehicle industry, though, thinks the benefits associated with civil drone use outweigh any concerns.
Last month, a small drone was spotted 200 feet from a passenger airliner within airspace controlled by John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. This isolated incident may be the first of many, though, as 2020 approaches.
There are provisions in the Drone Act to protect manned aviation - airplanes and helicopters - from unmanned flight. But those provisions cannot prevent an inadvertent breach of controlled airspace. Also, as the drone population grows, so do the chances of a midair collision between two drones.
Unmanned aircraft already are finding homes in local police departments and other law enforcement agencies. The specific provision in the Drone Act authorizing law enforcement and other government-funded entities to use drones now, while the FAA creates final regulations for commercial use, mandates aircraft must weigh 25 pounds or less, cannot be operated higher than 400 feet above the ground or near airports and must remain within naked eyesight of the operator.
Right now, law enforcement can use drones to survey anything that is visible to the human eye without a warrant, said Amie Stepanovich, counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
But drones can be equipped with penetrating technology such as infrared thermal imaging cameras to uncover details that are not visible to the naked human eye.
"It is physically impossible to hide from a drone within the typical home" if the drone is equipped properly, she said. At this point, with the technology being so new, Stepanovich said it is unclear whether such examinations would be considered "searches" under the Fourth Amendment, which would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant.