When you hear the word drone you may immediately think of bombs being dropped in the Middle East or the surveillance of citizens here in the United States, but engineers and aviation geeks have wondered for decades if unmanned flight might solve a few of our world's problems or just make our lives a little easier.
Over 30 years ago, science magazines wondered if drones would "sniff out pollution," or, "make pilots obsolete," and engineers are saying that those ideas may be possible now.
"The technology has reached a point where it can be very inexpensive to buy [unmanned aerial system technology]," says John Villasenor, an engineer at UCLA and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Villasenor says that advances in GPS, airframe design, and flight control methods have made unmanned flight available to pretty much anyone.
As a part of the FAA's re-authorization of funds in February 2012, Congress passed a bill that included the integration of unmanned aircraft into U.S. airspace. First for public entities like law enforcement or fire fighters and second for civilians like farmers or filmmakers with full integration by 2015. In July, the FAA approved two drones for commerical use which could fly as early as 2013.
The industry is growing so quickly worldwide that the intelligence research firm the Teal Group, said in June 2013 that unmanned aerial vehicle spending will more than double over the next ten years from current expenditures of $5.2 billion annually to $11.6 billion--totaling just over $89 billion in the next decade.
"The potential of UAVs benefiting mankind in firefighting, agriculture, pollution, stopping all sorts of loss of life because we were able to send a remote vehicle instead of a human life into that is amazing," said Alan Tratnor of the California Space Enterprise Center at an unmanned aerial vehicle policy symposium put on by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in March 2013.
The symposium is like a lot of public discussions going on around the world right now about drones.
"It's a way to have a dialogue across the whole community to make sure we are all thinking of the right things and moving in the right direction together," said Sandra Magnus, executive director of AIAA.
Some companies have already hit the ground running with low level aerial filmmaking. Drone Dudes is a two year old company of young filmmakers and engineers who shoot sporting events across the United States. Whether it's biking, surfing, driving or skateboarding, Drone Dudes is able to capture aerial shots that are considerably cheaper and more dynamic that using a crane or a helicopter.
Magnus, who is also a former astronaut, says that she is aware of the concerns people have about the new technology.
"Human beings, our very nature, we're a little scary about change because it's the unknown, but we're explorers too. And we are constantly balancing that tension between what's the unknown like and part of us yearn to go into the unknown and all the debate you hear about the use of unmanned vehicles on both sides, you're seeing that tension played out."
Villasenor points out that in the late 1800s, when cameras became cheap enough for many Americans to buy, there was tension over that new technology too. Some of that tension grew over privacy fears, a topic the unmanned aerial system community can't seem to escape.
"I think civil libertarians have a right to be concerned about privacy," says Villasenor. "To deny that unmanned aircraft […] will in some cases be used in manner that violates privacy, that would be overly naive. It will happen."
Villasenor points out that when it comes to government drones with cameras the fourth amendment still should apply when it comes to civilians, there are invasion of privacy statues people must abide by.
"I also think it's important for people with an interest in civil liberties and everyone else to look at it on the other side […] We have, all of us, an affirmative first amendment right to gather information so unmanned aircraft in the hands of people who are gathering information which includes people in the news media and others can be very powerful tools just like cameras are today," says Villasenor.
"Technology is a tool and you have to be mindful how you use it," says Magnus. "But we can't let our fear keep us from reaping the benefits of our brains, which is where the technology comes from."
Written and produced by Paul Detrick. Camera by Detrick, Sharif Matar, Alex Manning and Tracy Oppenheimer.
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