Judging by the number of autonomous vehicles displayed at the recent international exhibition in Washington, unmanned aerial vehicles or drones are here to stay. But their extensive use in the commercial sector is hindered by the slow introduction of rules and regulations.
Drones have many advantages. They are cheaper to purchase, operate and service than piloted aircraft.
They can be sent on dangerous missions without putting a crew in harm's way.
And drones have potential way beyond the military.
They could help find hikers lost in the wilderness, monitor crops, manage wildlife, spray vineyards, deliver medicine, explore for oil, monitor power lines, even deliver takeout.
The main obstacle for civilian use of drones in the United States is the lack of regulations.
The Federal Aviation Administration regulates U.S. airspace and allows a restricted use of drones in areas of low air traffic, like Alaska.
Operators must request an Experimental Airworthiness Certificate to fly a drone. The FAA said that precludes "carrying people or property for compensation or hire, but allows operations for research and development, flight and sales demonstrations and crew training.”
That's what AeroVironment plans to do with its popular drone called the Puma, explained David Heidel, the company's marketing manager.
“As announced a couple of weeks ago we will seek the restricted category classification from the FAA that allows us to fly the Puma in the Arctic region, and there we would target oil spill monitoring, wildlife monitoring, coastal monitoring."
The exhibit at Washington’s Convention Center was full of unmanned airplanes and helicopters, but also remote-controlled and autonomous ground-based and underwater craft.
Manufacturers point out that their vehicles, designed for the military, can be converted for civilian use.
“Aerial view, law enforcement, military, border patrol, fire departments. We cater to military now, and border patrol, as well as fire departments, law enforcement," Jason Rittenhour, an engineer with Applied Research Associates said. "There is a huge interest for law enforcement, especially SWAT teams, being able to get the aerial view that they want.”
But the process for allowing more commercial use of drones is advancing more slowly than the technology because the FAA hasn't developed policies to protect the privacy of Americans.
Congress may consider a bill to stop the process until the FAA completes a report on the potential privacy issues related to drones.
In the meantime, manufacturers will continue to depend on military and law enforcement purchases.