The drone next door

The drone is going mainstream.

Pilotless aircraft - known until now primarily for their controversial role in American foreign policy - are now being integrated into American life. The Federal Aviation Administration expects there to be 7,500 commercial drones operating domestically by 2018.

Already, drones are being used by real estate agents to make videos of high-end homes for sale and media outlets seeking relatively cheap aerial shots. But this use of drones - known in the industry as unmanned aerial vehicles or unmanned aircraft systems - is in a legal gray zone. Asked if a real estate agent using a drone to generate video of a home is breaking the law, a spokesperson for the FAA responded, "he could be."

For now, drones cannot currently be used for explicitly commercial purposes. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), an advocacy and lobbying group for the industry, has pushed lawmakers to allow farmers, Hollywood filmmakers, food-delivery companies (including one Bay Area startup that wants to operate a drone "TacoCopter") and others to legally use drones in their business. It forecasts that if the industry is allowed to flourish, the drone industry will grow nearly 600 percent by 2025, to a value of $82 billion, creating 100,000 jobs along the way.

"When I say the word drone, the first thing that probably comes to your mind is something that is military, something that is hostile, something that is weaponized," said AUVSI president and CEO Michael Toscano, who strongly prefers the term "UAS," for unmanned aerial system. "Well, these are the farthest from that."

He noted that some drones weigh no more than a pound and will be used for precision agriculture and search and rescue missions, not dropping bombs.

"They are an extension of the eyes and ears and hands of a human being, that allow them to do those dirty, dangerous, difficult and dull missions out there," said Toscano.

Following lobbying from the drone industry, which Hearst Newspapers and the Center for Responsive Politics reported contributed nearly $8 million over four years to members of the "drone caucus" in the House, Congress last year required the FAA to issue regulations on integrating drones into commercial airspace by September 2015. The FAA is currently accepting applications for six drone test sites as it develops its regulations and preparing to issue a rule regulating operation of small drones. (Congress mandated integration of drones into U.S. airspace by the 2015 deadline, but that doesn't necessarily mean full integration; there is a good chance, especially in the wake of sequestration, that the FAA will only clear small drones - under 55 pounds - for use by the deadline.)

The agency is also working with experts at the Defense Department, NASA and elsewhere to try to ensure that drones can be operated safely in U.S. airspace by the 2015 deadline. It's no small task: Last September, a Government Accountability Office report found that drones are not yet able to avoid other aircraft and that there are "[c]oncerns about national security, privacy and interference with Global Positioning System signals." 

Still, there is no question that the technology has dramatically improved - to the point that one company in South Africa plans to use drones to deliver beer at an upcoming music festival. A British drone company recently announced a system in which a drone can follow you (via your mobile phone's signal) to capture your every movement on video. The industry is in the middle of a gold rush - the former editor of Wired magazine, Chris Anderson, left the publication to found a drone company, one of hundreds that have sprung up in recent years - and it is generating drones in all shapes and sizes. "The sky," Anderson said recently (and a bit ominously), "could be dark with these things."