Most Americans have seen news clips of US Predator drones taking off to bomb foreign battlefields. Over the last several years, unmanned aircraft have been a huge – and controversial – part of US military efforts both in terms or intelligence gathering and air strikes. Military drones are just a small portion of the drone industry, however, and corporations in many industries see potential in the technology. Even so, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) isn’t quite ready to open airspace to anyone with a tiny flying machine.

 

Currently, the commercial use of drones is banned in the US. Other countries have opened their air space, and many US businesses are pushing for new regulations to help them compete. In response, the agency has been working furiously to develop new rules that will protect air space and protect privacy, but will still allow for the commercial use of drone technology.

 

In late December 2013, the FAA announced that it was opening six drone test sites in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas, and Virginia. They chose those six states because each has a unique climate, unique terrain, and unique airspace. The agency hopes that the data gathered at these test sites will help them collect critical data regarding drone technology, and will inform a revised set of drone regulations.

 

Emerging Technologies

 

Companies of all Sizes Eye Up Drones

 

Amazon was the first company to whet the general population’s appetite for drones with its announcement that it had been secretly experimenting with drones. Their goal? To deliver packages to customers within 30 minutes of an order. They dubbed it, “Amazon Prime Air.”  At the time it released their promotional drone video, Amazon noted that it would have to wait for FAA rules and regulations to catch up with technology. Nonetheless, they sparked a national conversation about the future of commercial drones.

 

There are myriad uses for drones across a number of industries.  Some of the most popular current (though sometimes illegal) uses of drones include:

 

  • Real estate agents giving aerial tours of commercial land and high-end properties.
  • Colleges and cities use drones as virtual “tour guides.”
  • Filmmakers use them as an inexpensive and more stable alternative to helicopters.
  • Police departments use them to track criminals.
  • Emergency teams use them for search and rescue missions.
  • Farmers use them to dust crops, patrol acreage, detect problems, and count livestock.

 

The FAA understands that it has to craft regulations that will maintain order and safety, but will still allow some use of drone technology. Striking that balance is proving to be very difficult, as many small companies are simply not complying with the ban, as they see drones as a way to gain a unique and competitive edge over their competitors.

 

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Privacy, Safety, and Hobbyists

 

The FAA is expected to use the data gathered from its six test sites when it is set to review regulations on the use of commercial drones in 2015.The agency will also have to weigh safety and privacy concerns in its new regulations, thanks to a groundswell of public concern. Since 2013, 42 states have considered bills restricting the use of drones, and eight have already passed laws. More states are expected to follow in the next few years.

 

Because most drones hold cameras, they could be used by people with ill intentions, such as robbers casing potential targets. If drones are allowed to fly freely, there could be hundreds upon hundreds of drones flying around in the sky. The chances of a drone falling, hitting a person, hitting a car, or slamming into a building will multiply exponentially.

 

Despite these concerns, the FAA has so far stayed away from regulating drone hobbyists, focusing their energies mainly on commercial drones. That could change, however, thanks to some hobbyists making headlines with their aircraft. In 2014, several dramatic videos of fireworks shows were captured by drones. Some of those drones shot footage near fireworks displays. Others went a step further and actually flew into the fireworks. The problem? Air space is restricted around fireworks displays. While the drone operators had no ill intent, they could have caused serious injury to spectators on the ground had the craft been hit by a stray rocket. When those fireworks videos went viral, the FAA responded by opening investigations into whether or not the flights violated federal restrictions and safety guidelines.

 

While hobbyists are not required to get FAA approval to operate their drones, they must still adhere to the laws governing air space and safety. While federal regulations may not have caught up with technology, some situations are falling to local police departments, In July 2014, two hobbyists in New York were arrested and charged with reckless endangerment when their drones almost collided with an NYPD helicopter.  The FAA hasn’t officially weighed in on that

particular situation, but it could have an impact on future actions.

 

Emerging Technologies

 

The Future of Drone Technology in the US

 

Nobody knows for sure just where the chips will fall when it comes to non-military drones. Some people envision a world in which our skies resemble our roads, with drones buzzing to and fro, delivering food, medicine, and gifts to people across the country. Other people envision a world where all drones are banned. It is likely that the FAA will back down somewhat on its commercial drone ban once it has gathered more data from its testing facilities. Most experts, however, aren’t holding their breath for a drone free-for-all in the skies.

 

Drones represent a world of possibilities for law enforcement, agriculture, and research. They also promise to open up endless possibilities for commercial entities and business logistics. One study indicates that the United States is losing $10 Billion each year in positive economic impact by delaying new regulations.   It’s likely that the country will eventually see more drones in the sky conducting personal and commercial business. It’s also likely, however, that the general public will have to wait a very long time before their retail packages are delivered by tiny helicopters. However the regulations turn out, it seems that drones will change the face of business, and they are here to stay.