Editorial: Coming to the skies near you
In past years, we’ve become familiar with the idea of unmanned aircraft circling overhead in Pakistan, Iraq or Afghanistan.
Some of those drones not only carry high-powered cameras and sensors, but also deadly missiles, which have been used to attack enemy soldiers or suspected terrorists.
But the idea of those same sorts of robot airplanes circling over our heads, here at home, is a concept that takes some getting used to.
We’d better start.
The FBI has been using small, remote-controlled aircraft to carry cameras and loiter overhead during hostage situations or when searching for suspects for some time now.
And the U.S. Border Patrol routinely uses the same model of drone that’s used in combat areas — the Predator — to help find illegal immigrants or drug smugglers as they try to cross our southern border.
And there have been some small experiments by various police agencies with hand-launched camera-carrying drones.
But the use of these devices is going to get much more common over the next few years.
The Federal Aviation Administration has just announced that will be allowed to develop test sites for drones, a critical next step for the march of the unmanned aircraft into U.S. skies.
Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia will host the research sites, providing diverse climates, geography and air traffic environments, according to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.
Governments, businesses, farmers and universities are queueing up to join the rush to get everything from slow-flying, solar-powered drones to four-rotor electric camera platforms.
The FAA has been the stumbling block for those who wish to market drone use, and officials there are extremely cautious about allowing them to fly over neighborhoods or near airports ... as well they should be. Experts project that some 7,500 commercial drones could be aloft within five years of getting access to American airspace.
There are privacy concerns, of course, and that is also justified. After all, a virtual reality drone, flying with silent electrical motors, is a Peeping Tom’s dream. And the idea of a 500-pound, out-of-control drone plunging into a football stadium during a game is a nightmare.
So strict regulation is absolutely necessary, and is already in process. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has introduced a bill that would prohibit drones from checking for criminal or regulatory violations without a warrant. “I just don’t like the concept of drones flying over barbecues in New York to see whether you have a Big Gulp in your backyard or whether you are separating out your recyclables according to the city mandates,” Paul said, referring to a New York City ban on supersized soft drinks.
But we’d better get used to the idea that an explosion of “eyes in the skies” is somewhere near in our future.
Like it or not, we suppose it’s inevitable.