BY W.J. HENNIGAN - Los Angeles Times
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 Association. "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 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 crafts don't have adequate "detect, sense and avoid" technology to prevent collisions.
Other concerns include privacy 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."
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. 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.
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, capturing crystal-clear video of what lies below.
The new drone weighs 5 1/2 pounds, fits in the trunk of a car and is controlled remotely by a tablet computer. AeroVironment unveiled Qube last month at the International Association 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.
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