The Federal Aviation Administration has been flooded with applications from police departments, universities and private corporations, all seeking to use drones that range from devices the size of a hummingbird to full-size aircraft like those used by the U.S. military to target al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and elsewhere.
Domestic use of drones began with limited aerial patrols of the nation’s borders by Customs and Border Patrol authorities. But the industry and its allies pushed for more, leading to passage of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, signed into law Feb. 14. The law requires the FAA to fully integrate the unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, into national airspace by September 2015.
“These timelines are very aggressive,” said Heidi Williams, a vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, one of the stakeholders taking part in a working group put together by the FAA to help develop a regulatory plan. “These issues are very complex, and we have a long way to go.”
Many potential uses for unmanned aircraft, which are cheaper to operate than piloted planes or helicopters, have been identified. Among them: monitoring pipelines and power lines, finding lost hikers, surveying crops, and assessing environmental threats and damage from natural disasters. The FAA has predicted that 30,000 drones could be flying in the United States in less than 20 years, sharing space with commercial, military and general aviation.