Drones, once known as weapons of war, are undergoing a dramatic makeover as a hot new business tool in the sky. But, as with unmanned military craft, domestic drones are prompting concerns over safety and privacy.
No agency tracks how many drones are now buzzing overhead. But it's likely hundreds a day hit the skies nationally on commercial missions, equipped with video cameras and launched by entrepreneurs looking for faster, cheaper and easier ways to provide services.
Lightweight drones, some hardly bigger than a Frisbee, shoot dramatic bird's-eye videos of ski races and outdoor weddings. They provide aerial footage for car commercials and real estate promotions.
The new breed of small domestic drones — known more formally as "unmanned aviation systems" or "remotely piloted aircraft" — can sell for $1,000 to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on size and sophistication. Users say operating the remote-controlled, spider-like craft costs far less than hiring a helicopter or plane, and allows users to fly into tight spaces, including indoors.
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"Drones are the future of aviation," said Patrick Egan, a Sacramento, Calif.-based consultant and an advocate for unmanned commercial craft. "It is already here. They are around you. And they are flying and doing jobs; you just weren't aware of them."
There is a hitch, though: Federal policy prohibits the commercial use of drones. The Federal Aviation Administration requires that commercial flights use certified aircraft and licensed pilots. Low-altitude use of drones by hobbyists is allowed, as are some research projects that use the technology.
That commercial ban appears to be only temporary. Congress has given the FAA until September 2015 to write an initial set of rules on how to safely allow unmanned, commercial aircraft into U.S. airspace.
For now, FAA officials say, they're sometimes issuing verbal warnings when they learn of drones being used for profit. A spokesman said the agency has sent about a dozen "cease and desist" letters. A Michigan florist recently said the FAA told him to back off plans to deliver Valentine's Day flowers via drone. A Minnesota brewery also stopped delivering beer to ice fishermen after FAA officials saw a YouTube video the company aired, according to media reports.
The FAA has acknowledged issuing one fine, for $10,000. The drone operator in that matter has challenged the penalty before a National Transportation Safety Board judge.
As with other new technology, the evolution of drones has outpaced government regulations and sparked debate over what controls are appropriate. Advocates describe them as benign worker bees that could generate billions of dollars for the U.S. economy. Others say the technology poses grave safety risks and personal privacy issues that must be addressed.
A growing assortment of smaller companies is eagerly embracing unmanned aircraft as a business tool, lured by the creative possibilities. Some business owners are pressing ahead, apparently unaware of the FAA prohibition. Others are proceeding on the assumption the federal government won't try to clamp down on all drone users. Despite the enthusiasm, federal officials, pilots and others say safety is a major concern, and that regulations are needed before thousands of drones take to the skies in urban areas in the next few years. While many drones weigh no more than 3 pounds, others weigh a hefty 50 pounds or more, and can fly high enough to cross paths with commercial aircraft.
A drone operator in New York was killed just a few months ago when he was hit in the head by his drone's rotors. In another incident, captured on a widely circulated YouTube video, a drone careened into a bride and groom during a pre-wedding shoot.
The FAA recently issued a statement saying it is taking its task seriously, and that it will proceed in "incremental" steps, starting first with proposals later this year for commercial use of unmanned aircraft under 55 pounds.