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Drone expo in Las Vegas sets sights on civilian market

At a Las Vegas trade show, drone makers turn their focus from the military to the highly promising civilian market.

August 09, 2012|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times

LAS VEGAS — In the land of casinos, it may be jarring at first to see a small box-like robot creeps across the floor as it stops, readies itself and catapults about 30 feet into the air.

Nearby, a basketball-sized drone with whirling rotors hovers 5 feet above the floor. Walk a little farther, and there is a large water tank with an underwater robot darting from side to side.

Welcome to the Assn. of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's North America trade show, an increasingly diverse collection of unmanned technology.

For years, drone makers came here to woo military brass and strategists who were hungry for the latest wartime technology.

It was in cavernous halls and tiny conference rooms that the newest robotic tools for spying, surveying, bombing and strategic combat of all kinds were on display or discussed in hush-hush tones. Eager sales executives for aerospace companies met with weapons buyers looking to cash in on wartime dollars.

No more. The landscape has drastically changed at this year's trade show. The exponential growth in the Pentagon budget has been cut, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down, and the small talk here is about deals being made for police helicopters, crop-dusters and hobby aircraft.

This is the brave new world of civilian drones — soon to play a big role in the skies over the United States. And no better place to see what the future holds than the booths and displays on items for sale.

"It started out as a defense show," said Gretchen West, association executive vice president. "Now, we're really seeing a shift to the civil and commercial market."

This increase in demand prompted Michael Huerta, acting administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration, to address the crowd Tuesday. His agency is tasked with integrating unmanned aircraft into U.S. airspace beginning in 2015 and issuing regulations to ensure public safety and personal privacy.

There is enormous hunger here to get into the skies over the United States. 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.

Dawei Dong, a 60-year old Chinese emigre and aeronautical engineer, started AgAiRobot Inc. in Holt near Stockton to spray crops with pesticides from a robotic helicopter.

He said that in the Central Valley crop-dusters are asking $25 an acre every time they fly, and that they're missing almost half of the crops. Dong's snowmobile-sized, remote-controlled chopper can drop pesticides more precisely because it's just 5 feet off the ground, he said. It cost $100,000 to $150,000.

Dong has built about 50 of the helicopters. But all they can do is collect dust in a warehouse because of FAA restrictions. Drones are not allowed to fly in the U.S. except with special permission from the FAA.

"We're trying to build a team to service the farmers in the Central Valley," Dong said. "But the FAA has no rule for this and people don't want to make the investment."

The concerns don't stop there. There are safety and privacy concerns about drones with high-powered cameras flying over populated areas. Representatives of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union have addressed panels at the convention here voicing their worries about those potential problems.

Still that hasn't stopped defense giants likeLockheed Martin Corp.from building small drones that have commercial applications. And Monrovia-based AeroVironment, the military's biggest supplier of small drones, has a drone on display at their booth with "POLICE" painted down the side of the airframe. 

Despite all the conventioneers' enthusiasm, there is a lot of hurdles facing the industry before drones play a big role in everyday life, said Ron Stearns at aerospace consulting firm G2 Solutions in Kirkland, Wash.

"I'm expecting the market five years from now to look a lot like it does today," he said, noting that the FAA has already fallen behind schedule in issuing rules on small drones and that there has been a massive push from a customer base to get at these robotic machines.

"The whole approach of the industry, 'If we build it, they will come,' isn't good enough," Stearns said. He expects the commercial drone market to pick up by 2025.

william.hennigan@latimes.com

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