LAS VEGAS — With the prospect of thousands of unmanned aircraft flying around U.S. airspace beginning in 2015, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration pledged that new regulations are in the works to keep skies safe and protect people's privacy.
Speaking before hundreds of drone makers, potential buyers and government officials at a drone expo Tuesday, acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the integration of unmanned aircraft in U.S. skies is a daunting challenge.
"There's a lot of work that needs to be done to move [drone] integration forward," he said. "But I'm very, very optimistic we will get there."
Opening the skies could be a potential boon for Southland drone makers such as AeroVironment Inc. of Monrovia, General Atomic Aeronautical Systems Inc. of Poway, Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp., which builds drones in Palmdale.
Drones, which have played a growing role in military combat around the world, have also begun to take on new commercial roles, often going where it's too dangerous for a pilot in a cockpit.
They have helped measure radiation during Japan's nuclear reactor meltdown, penetrated the eyes of hurricanes to gather scientific data and helped firefighters see hot spots during wildfires. The FAA has also allowed limited surveillance uses for a few police agencies.
Currently, drones are not allowed to fly in the U.S. except with special permission from the FAA. But as technology becomes more advanced and demand increases from police agencies and others for using drones in the commercial world, the agency has moved to ease restrictions.
While drone technology has evolved, there are still safety concerns, Huerta said. There are also privacy concerns about the use of high-powered cameras on drones that one day will be able to fly above backyard pool parties and other private activities.
Huerta said the FAA has repeatedly reached out for public input to address worries about how drones will be used.
So, while fine-tuning the technology is important, Huerta said, "building human consensus … is an equally important task and unbelievably complicated."
Huerta told the crowd that the FAA was prepared to meet a congressional mandate to integrate the airspace with robotic aircraft by September of 2015. This year, the agency created a separate office to oversee unmanned systems integration and the process of picking six drone test sites across the country by the end of the year.
At those six locations, the FAA will gather data on unmanned aircraft. The FAA has said that remotely piloted aircraft aren't allowed in national airspace on a wide scale now because they don't have an adequate "detect, sense and avoid" technology to prevent midair collisions.
But the FAA is still developing plans. Huerta said he could name the location of the sites by the end of the year.
Other speakers at the Assn. for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International trade show said that the FAA should leverage lessons learned with drones from the military on how to fly the aircraft and how to ensure they're safe.
Not far from the Mandalay Bay hotel, where the trade show is being held until Thursday, is Creech Air Force Base and Nellis Air Force Base. The bases are home to the nerve center where many of the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones in the Middle East are controlled remotely by Air Force personnel.
"A lot of work has been done on aircraft certification," said Col. Juan Narvid, chief of the Air Force's aviation integration division. "There is curriculum already defined on how to certify pilots."
These are processes that don't have to be reinvented by the FAA, he said.
Huerta's appearance marked the first time an FAA administrator addressed the show in its 39-year history. The unmanned vehicle group's trade show has more than 8,000 attendees and 500 exhibitors showing off robotic technology of all stripes: in the air, on land and in the sea.