Why You Could Soon See A Lot More Drones In American Skies

Illustration for article titled Why You Could Soon See A Lot More Drones In American Skies

Drones aren't just for the military anymore. Department of Homeland Security grants gave hundreds of law enforcement and fire agencies across the country access to them. But DHS may have jumped the gun, as the Federal Aviation Administration hasn't yet okayed populating America's already busy skies with unmanned aerial vehicles.

Backed by the drone industry, Congress is trying to push forward an FAA rule that will allow more drones to fly in civil airspace. But not without a fight from advocacy groups asserting that a sky full of hovering cameras would invade peoples' privacy.

That the drones were hurriedly purchased to take advantage of free federal money is not surprising. DHS has given out $31 billion in grants to state and local governments since 2003, covering everything from drones for police and fire departments and shotguns for state park rangers to armored personnel carriers for local sheriff's departments.


Unfortunately for drone happy local government agencies, FAA has kept many of the pilotless aircraft grounded until it develops new rules taking them into consideration. Just to be clear, most of the drones we're talking about aren't those scary looking MQ-9 Reaper drones sent to terrorize Afghan insurgents, but lightweight (but still creepy looking) ones that you could probably pick up. (They're also not like this one.)

Until recently, the FAA kept which entities are allowed to fly UAVs in U.S. airspace secret. Most would agree that agencies fighting big fires and battling out-of-control crime problems would be well served by drones. Critics think Congress is rushing the new FAA rule too quickly — a move they say would increase the level of electronic surveillance to which Americans are subjected — and want to know who has them and what they're used for.

FAA officials have their own qualms. There are already a lot of planes in the sky, most flown by professional pilots. Throw a horde of remote controlled airplane pilots who can't see their aircraft into the mix and the results could be disastrous.


Proponents of drone use argue that they would be great for everything from crop dusting and natural disaster rescue to hunting down illegal immigrants, offering light duty aviation services at a fraction of the cost of traditional airplanes and helicopters.

There are two ways to look at this. One is the hurry up approach: America is under attack by all sorts of shady forces and must arm itself in every conceivable way as quickly as possible, especially by militarizing civil law enforcement agencies. Then there's the old, measured assessment, looking at everything one piece at a time: So you want to do what with a camera equipped UAV, where?


What do you think, should FAA speed through the process to allow local agencies to get airborne now, or should it take its time to avoid waste, overlap and unsafe airspace?

Photo credit: AP

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Here's my advice: Build a drone. Seriously. Everybody should build their own personal UAV. You can build an entry-level unit for a couple hundred bucks. For around a grand you can build an amazing fully-autonomous long-range UAV. It is not often that a technology-frontier like this opens up to the world in such an accessible manner. It won't stay open for long, so seize the opportunity to do a bit of homesteading before the land-rush. Have fun and learn some stuff before the lock-down. 10 years from now you'll be able to look back and say "Hey, remember all the fun we had with our UAV before they outlawed civilian use and started requiring licenses, transponders, and flight-plan pre-approval?"