WASHINGTON — It's a good bet that in the not-so-distant future aerial drones will be part of Americans' everyday lives, performing countless useful functions.
A far cry from the killing machines whose missiles incinerate terrorists, these generally small, unmanned aircraft will help farmers more precisely apply water and pesticides to crops, saving money and reducing environmental impacts. They'll help police departments find missing people, reconstruct traffic accidents and act as lookouts for SWAT teams. They'll alert authorities to people stranded on rooftops by hurricanes and monitor evacuation flows.
Real estate agents will use them to film videos of properties and surrounding neighborhoods. States will use them to inspect bridges, roads and dams. Oil companies will use them to monitor pipelines, while power companies use them to monitor transmission lines.
With military budgets shrinking, drone makers have been counting on the civilian market to spur the industry's growth. But there's an ironic threat to that hope: Success on the battlefield may contain the seeds of trouble for the more benign uses of drones at home.
The civilian unmanned aircraft industry worries that it will be grounded before it can really take off because of fear among the public that the technology will be misused. Also problematic is a delay in the issuance of government safety regulations that are needed before drones can gain broad access to U.S. skies.
Some companies that make drones or supply support equipment and services say the uncertainty has caused them to put U.S. expansion plans on hold, and they are looking overseas for new markets.
"Our lack of success in educating the public about unmanned aircraft is coming back to bite us," said Robert Fitzgerald, CEO of The BOSH Group of Newport News, Va., which provides support services to drone users.
"The U.S. has been at the lead of this technology a long time," he said. "If our government holds back this technology, there's the freedom to move elsewhere ... and all of a sudden these things will be flying everywhere else and competing with us."
Since January, drone-related legislation has been introduced in more than 30 states, largely in response to privacy concerns. Many of the bills are focused on preventing police from using drones for broad public surveillance, as well as targeting individuals for surveillance without sufficient grounds to believe they were involved in crimes.
Law enforcement is expected to be one of the bigger initial markets for civilian drones. Last month, the FBI used drones to maintain continuous surveillance of a bunker in Alabama where a 5-year-old boy was being held hostage.
In Virginia, the state General Assembly passed a bill that would place a two-year moratorium on the use of drones by state and local law enforcement. The measure is supported by groups as varied as the American Civil Liberties Union on the left and the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation on the right.
Gov. Bob McDonnell is proposing amendments that would retain the broad ban on spy drones but allow specific exemptions when lives are in danger, such as for search-and rescue operations. The legislature reconvenes on April 3 to consider the amendments.
"Any legislation that restricts the use of this kind of capability to serve the public is putting the public at risk," said Steve Gitlin, vice president of AeroVironment, a leading maker of smaller drones, including some no bigger than a hummingbird
Seattle abandoned its drone program after community protests in February. The city's police department had purchased two drones through a federal grant without consulting the city council.
Drones "clearly have so much potential for saving lives, and it's a darn shame we're having to go through this right now," said Stephen Ingley, executive director of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association. "It's frustrating."
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