Reuters / Fabrizio Bensch Blades of glory: at a trade fair in Hanover, Germany, March 2014

Drone On

The Sky’s the Limit—If the FAA Will 
Get Out of the Way

In the beginning, drones were almost exclusively the province of militaries. At first little more than remote-controlled model planes used in the World War I era, military drones advanced steadily over the decades, eventually becoming sophisticated tools that could surveil battlefield enemies from the sky. Today, the terms “drone” and “unmanned aircraft system” denote a vehicle that navigates through the air from point A to point B and is either remotely controlled or flies autonomously. While they vary in size and shape, such vehicles all feature a communications link, intelligent software, sensors or cameras, a power source, and a method of mobility (usually propellers).

Inevitably, drone technology spilled out from the military and into other parts of the public sector. In the United States over the last decade, federal researchers turned to drones for monitoring weather and land, the Department of Homeland Security started relying on them to keep an eye on borders, and police adopted them for search-and-rescue missions. Then came everyday consumers, who took to parks on the weekend with their often homemade creations. Outside government, drones were mostly flown for fun, not profit.

Until recently, that is. In the last several years, a new group of actors has come to embrace drones: private companies. Inspired by the technological progress made in the military and in the massive hobby market, these newcomers have realized that in everything from farming to bridge inspection, drones offer a dramatic improvement over business as usual. The potential for the commercial use of drones is nearly limitless. But in the United States, the growing drone industry faces a major regulatory obstacle: the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued overly restrictive rules that threaten to kill a promising new technology in the cradle.

SERIOUS BUSINESS

As more and more actors have invested in drone research and development, the vehicles themselves have become cheaper, simpler, and safer. Perhaps even more exciting are the changes in software, which has advanced at lightning speed, getting smarter and more

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