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Idea of civilians using drone aircraft may soon fly with FAA

The Federal Aviation Administration plans to propose new rules for the use of small drones in January, a first step toward clearing the way for police departments, farmers and others to employ the technology.

November 27, 2011|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
  • The Qube fits in the trunk of a car and is controlled remotely by a tablet computer.
The Qube fits in the trunk of a car and is controlled remotely by a tablet computer. (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

Drone aircraft, best known for their role in hunting and destroying terrorist hide-outs in Afghanistan, may soon be coming to the skies near you.

Police agencies want drones for air support to spot runaway criminals. Utility companies believe they can help monitor oil, gas and water pipelines. Farmers think drones could aid in spraying their crops with pesticides.

"It's going to happen," said Dan Elwell, vice president of civil aviation at the Aerospace Industries Assn. "Now it's about figuring out how to safely assimilate the technology into national airspace."

That's the job of the Federal Aviation Administration, which plans to propose new rules for the use of small drones in January, a first step toward integrating robotic aircraft into the nation's skyways.

The agency has issued 266 active testing permits for civilian drone applications but hasn't permitted drones in national airspace on a wide scale out of concern that the pilotless craft don't have an adequate "detect, sense and avoid" technology to prevent midair collisions.

Other concerns include privacy — imagine a camera-equipped drone buzzing above your backyard pool party — and the creative ways in which criminals and terrorists might use the machines.

"By definition, small drones are easy to conceal and fly without getting a lot of attention," said John Villasenor, a UCLA professor and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for Technology Innovation. "Bad guys know this."

The aerospace industry insists these concerns can be addressed. It also believes that the good guys — the nation's law enforcement agencies — are probably the biggest commercial market for domestic drones, at least initially.

Police departments in Texas, Florida and Minnesota have expressed interest in the technology's potential to spot runaway criminals on rooftops or to track them at night by using the robotic aircraft's heat-seeking cameras.

"Most Americans still see drone aircraft in the realm of science fiction," said Peter W. Singer, author of "Wired for War," a book about robotic warfare. "But the technology is here. And it isn't going away. It will increasingly play a role in our lives. The real question is: How do we deal with it?"

Drone maker AeroVironment Inc. of Monrovia, the nation's biggest supplier of small drones to the military, has developed its first small helicopter drone that's designed specifically for law enforcement. If FAA restrictions are eased, the company plans to shop it among the estimated 18,000 state and local police departments across the United States.

In the foothills north of Simi Valley, amid acres of scrubland, AeroVironment engineers have been secretly testing a miniature remote-controlled helicopter named Qube. Buzzing like an angry hornet, the tiny drone with four whirling rotors swoops back and forth about 200 feet above the ground scouring the landscape and capturing crystal-clear video of what lies below.

The new drone weighs 51/2 pounds, fits in the trunk of a car and is controlled remotely by a tablet computer. AeroVironment unveiled Qube last month at the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police conference in Chicago.

"This is a tool that many law enforcement agencies never imagined they could have," said Steven Gitlin, a company executive.

Plenty of police departments fly expensive helicopters for high-speed chases, spotting suspects and finding missing people. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said it recently bought 12 new helicopters at a cost of $1.7 million each.

Gitlin said a small Qube, by comparison, would cost "slightly more than the price of a police cruiser," or about $40,000.

Sheriff's Department Cmdr. Bob Osborne said that there's "no doubt" that the department is interested in using drones. "It's just that the FAA hasn't come up with workable rules that we can harness it. If those roadblocks were down, we'd want to use it."

Drones' low-cost appeal has other industries interested as well.

Farmers in Japan already use small drones to automatically spray their crops with pesticides, and more recently safety inspectors used them at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Archaeologists in Russia are using small drones and their infrared cameras to construct a 3-D model of ancient burial mounds. Officials in Tampa Bay, Fla., want to use them for security surveillance at next year's Republican National Convention.

But the FAA says there are technical issues to be addressed before they're introduced in civil airspace. Among them is how to respond if a communication link is lost with a drone — such as when it falls out of the sky, takes a nose dive into a backyard pool or crashes through someone's roof.

Frederick W. Smith, founder of FedEx Corp., the largest owner of commercial cargo jets, suggested using a fleet of package-laden drones led by a traditionally piloted plane that could keep an eye on the robotic aircraft.

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