Government legal guidelines passed last year requires the Federal aviation administration to prepare a plan to open U.S. skies in 2015 to extensive use of unmanned aircraft through public organizations and private industry.
Possible marketplaces include farming, shipping, oil research, commercial fishing, major league sports, film and television production, environmental monitoring, meteorological studies, law enforcement and the news media.
The aviation and aerospace business research firm Teal Group estimated last year that unmanned aircraft will double over the next 10 years, to nearly $90 billion, with the U.S. accounting for sixty two % of study and further development spending and fifty five % of purchasing spending.
For decades, model aircraft enthusiasts have been allowed to fly small, remote-controlled planes up to four hundred feet and at least a quarter mile from any airport terminal. While public agencies can get permission to use unarmed drones, all commercial use remains banned.
“As a enthusiast – I can do whatever I want right now, within remote-control guidelines,” said Bateson, the aerial photographer. “But as soon as you turn it into a business … the FAA says you are violating the national airspace.”
Bateson flies a customized 48-inch-wide Styrofoam fixed-wing remote-controlled aircraft that cost about $20,000 – compared with up to $1 million for a helicopter. He said his aircraft has logged 1,800 miles and has recorded 60 hours of high-resolution video. He said he has never run into trouble with the FAA.
Patrick Egan, an unmanned aircraft consultant to the U.S. military and editor of sUAS News, a drone news website, said the FAA’s commercial ban on drones is unenforceable.
“How do you possibly enforce these regulations?” he said.
Earlier this year, Connecticut marketing firm ImageMark Strategy and Design launched a drone-powered aerial photo and video service to offer to its existing customers, which include universities, golf resorts and real estate firms.
Partner Scott Benton said his organization spent about $20,000 in remote-controlled multi-rotor copters equipped to carry video cameras or SLR digital cameras with swivel tilts. Benton said he wasn’t even aware of FAA restrictions on commercial drone use until after he purchased all the equipment.
He said their business plans to charge customers for croping and editing and post-production work, not the drone flights.
Many professional drone operators offer comparable justifications. Some say these people operate only on non-public property. Others say they are selling data, not drone flight time.
Still others say they will simply take their own chances.
“Honestly?” said one commercial operator, who requested privacy to protect his company. “My hope is that I’m far afield enough and small enough potatoes to the Federal aviation administration that I can fly under the radar on this one.”
Would-be enemies have already tried to take advantage of drones. Last fall, a Massachusetts man was sentenced to 17 years in prison for planning to attack Washington, D.C., with 3 remote-controlled airplanes carrying C-4 explosives.
Drones may also be vulnerable to hacking.
Last summer, Department of Homeland Security officials challenged Texas aerospace engineering professor Todd Humphreys and his class to try to “spoof” a DHS drone’s GPS system.
GPS “spoofing” is a technique by which a vehicle’s GPS receiver can be deceived and taken over by a slightly more potent transmission that mimics the attributes of the original signal – essentially an airborne hack.
Humphreys and his college students succeeded in hacking the drone and took control of its flight path.
If a college class “can spoof the GPS, what can other nation states or terrorist groups do?” Representative Paul Broun (R-Ga.) asked at a recent congressional hearing on domestic drones.
Some U.S. drone designers worry about the consequences of what they see as a slow U.S. response to a rapidly developing technology.
“The Chinese are going to kill us,” said Texas pilot Gene Robinson, who spent $20,000 designing an innovative fixed-wing drone for search-and-rescue missions. “They have copied every single design, including mine, that they can get their hands on.”
Robinson said he put in place Web-tracking software on his drone design Web page and then observed last spring as a Chinese design company “spent a month on my Web page … reverse-engineered my design” and began marketing mass-produced copies in December – for $169.