Drone aircraft, best known for their role in hunting and destroying terrorist hide-outs in Afghanistan, may soon be coming to the skies near you.
Police agencies want drones for air support to spot runaway criminals. Utility companies believe they can help monitor oil, gas and water pipelines. Farmers think drones could aid in spraying their crops with pesticides.
"It's going to happen," said Dan Elwell, vice president of civil aviation at the Aerospace Industries Assn. "Now it's about figuring out how to safely assimilate the technology into national airspace."
That's the job of the Federal Aviation Administration, which plans to propose new rules for the use of small drones in January, a first step toward integrating robotic aircraft into the nation's skyways.
The agency has issued 266 active testing permits for civilian drone applications but hasn't permitted drones in national airspace on a wide scale out of concern that the pilotless craft don't have an adequate "detect, sense and avoid" technology to prevent midair collisions.
Other concerns include privacy — imagine a camera-equipped drone buzzing above your backyard pool party — and the creative ways in which criminals and terrorists might use the machines.
"By definition, small drones are easy to conceal and fly without getting a lot of attention," said John Villasenor, a UCLA professor and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for Technology Innovation. "Bad guys know this."
The aerospace industry insists these concerns can be addressed. It also believes that the good guys — the nation's law enforcement agencies — are probably the biggest commercial market for domestic drones, at least initially.
Police departments in Texas, Florida and Minnesota have expressed interest in the technology's potential to spot runaway criminals on rooftops or to track them at night by using the robotic aircraft's heat-seeking cameras.
"Most Americans still see drone aircraft in the realm of science fiction," said Peter W. Singer, author of "Wired for War," a book about robotic warfare. "But the technology is here. And it isn't going away. It will increasingly play a role in our lives. The real question is: How do we deal with it?"
Drone maker AeroVironment Inc. of Monrovia, the nation's biggest supplier of small drones to the military, has developed its first small helicopter drone that's designed specifically for law enforcement. If FAA restrictions are eased, the company plans to shop it among the estimated 18,000 state and local police departments across the United States.
In the foothills north of Simi Valley, amid acres of scrubland, AeroVironment engineers have been secretly testing a miniature remote-controlled helicopter named Qube. Buzzing like an angry hornet, the tiny drone with four whirling rotors swoops back and forth about 200 feet above the ground scouring the landscape and capturing crystal-clear video of what lies below.
The new drone weighs 51/2 pounds, fits in the trunk of a car and is controlled remotely by a tablet computer. AeroVironment unveiled Qube last month at the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police conference in Chicago.
"This is a tool that many law enforcement agencies never imagined they could have," said Steven Gitlin, a company executive.
Plenty of police departments fly expensive helicopters for high-speed chases, spotting suspects and finding missing people. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said it recently bought 12 new helicopters at a cost of $1.7 million each.
Gitlin said a small Qube, by comparison, would cost "slightly more than the price of a police cruiser," or about $40,000.
Sheriff's Department Cmdr. Bob Osborne said that there's "no doubt" that the department is interested in using drones. "It's just that the FAA hasn't come up with workable rules that we can harness it. If those roadblocks were down, we'd want to use it."
Drones' low-cost appeal has other industries interested as well.
Farmers in Japan already use small drones to automatically spray their crops with pesticides, and more recently safety inspectors used them at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Archaeologists in Russia are using small drones and their infrared cameras to construct a 3-D model of ancient burial mounds. Officials in Tampa Bay, Fla., want to use them for security surveillance at next year's Republican National Convention.
But the FAA says there are technical issues to be addressed before they're introduced in civil airspace. Among them is how to respond if a communication link is lost with a drone — such as when it falls out of the sky, takes a nose dive into a backyard pool or crashes through someone's roof.
Frederick W. Smith, founder of FedEx Corp., the largest owner of commercial cargo jets, suggested using a fleet of package-laden drones led by a traditionally piloted plane that could keep an eye on the robotic aircraft.
"Think of it like a train where you have a locomotive and you put two or three or four or 10 cars — depending on what demand is — and the drones basically fly the exact same flight profile in formation," Smith said at a Wired magazine conference last year. "It's very efficient."
Drones could also be useful to real estate agents to showcase sprawling properties. Oil and gas companies want to utilize them to keep an eye on their pipelines. Even organizations delivering humanitarian assistance want to use drones.
Matternet, a Silicon Valley start-up, has proposed a network of drones to deliver food and medicine in isolated regions around the world that are now inaccessible because they have no roads.
But if the use of drones is so widespread in the future, it raises concern that they could fall into the wrong hands and be weaponized.
Small drones are not designed to carry weapons or explosive materials, and the extra weight makes the drones difficult to control, said Gretchen West, executive vice president of the Assn. for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a robotic technology trade group.
"Also, because the technology on these systems are state of the art," West said, they are controlled by "rules that govern the larger systems, which prohibit the systems and technology from falling into the wrong hands."
Still, there are vast privacy concerns to be confronted by government officials, such as what kinds of surveillance should be allowed and who should be permitted to use these drones.
"It's important that the FAA is scrutinizing the safety of the technology, but they should also make sure Americans' privacy is maintained," said Catherine Crump, an American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney. "Having cheap, portable, flying surveillance machines may have a tremendous benefit for law enforcement, but will it respect Americans' privacy?"
Other countries appear to have safely harnessed the technology. Brazil uses drones to scour the Amazon rain forest for drug trafficking. Researchers in Costa Rica are sending drones into clouds of volcanic ash to help predict future eruptions. Argentina, South Korea, and Turkey buy small drone helicopters for overhead views of their land and for crop dusting from Guided Systems Technologies Inc.
For now, the Stockbridge, Ga., company deals primarily with foreign countries, which don't have restrictive rules against drones, because it can't sell the aircraft at home.
That all might change, said West of the Assn. for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. The U.S. commercial market for drones has "untapped" potential, she said. The association estimates that 23,000 jobs could be added over the next 15 years if national airspace is opened to commercial drones.
"Industry is ready," she said. "We're all waiting to see what the FAA will do."