“Autonomous flight!” Christopher Vo shouted, smiling as he looked skyward at a spider-like helicopter about the size of a large pizza box hovering 50 feet above his head.
The drone — built by Vo with parts purchased online — sped off nearly silently toward a preprogrammed waypoint without Vo so much as touching the joystick on the controller in his hand.
Computer, camera and aviation technologies have become smaller and more affordable, making it possible for everyday people like Vo to purchase, build and operate drones for fun. And while current regulations forbid commercial drone flights, private companies are lobbying to change that so they can enter what they think will be a lucrative market for drones that can be used to map terrain or even help real estate agents develop virtual tours.
“We just want to fly and have some fun,” said Vo, who was joined at a recent “fly-in” in Leesburg, Va., by several dozen other drones enthusiasts.
But critics point to drones’ potential dark side, warning they could be used to invade citizens’ privacy, fire a gun or even take down a plane. That leaves the Federal Aviation Administration struggling to strike a balance between promoting innovation and maintaining privacy and safety.
Current law allows for drone use by various law enforcement agencies, including Customs and Border Protection, the Drug Enforcement Administration and many local police departments. Civilians are permitted by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones in unrestricted airspace as long as the drones fly no higher than 400 feet.
Technically speaking, any craft capable of pilotless flight can be considered an unmanned aerial vehicle, including remote control planes, blimps and toy helicopters.
But modern unmanned aerial vehicles, the formal name for drones (other names include unmanned aircraft, unmanned aerial system, remotely piloted vehicle and remotely operated aircraft), aren’t your grandfather’s model planes. Nor are they deadly, military-grade Predators that fly over the skies of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The distinction is one of functionality, size and sophistication.
“To compare what I have in my office to a Predator drone is laughably absurd,” said Professor Matt Waite, a drone expert at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who has started a lab to build drones for journalistic purposes. “We have a serious language problem, the definition of drone has become so twisted it’s almost meaningless.”
The drones in Waite’s office, which can be built for less than $1000, are equipped with cameras and GPS systems. The military’s Predator drones can cost upwards of $5 million each and while they also have cameras and GPS systems, they often have an important differentiating feature: Hellfire missiles, which are laser and radar-guided air-to-surface missiles designed in the 1970s by the U.S. Army to serve as “tank-busters.”
Modern civilian drones — many of which are spider-like, multi-propellor miniature helicopters rather than fixed-wing planes — can be affixed with a variety of high-tech attachments, making them more akin to flying robots than model airplanes.
Drones can be purchased online or in hobby stores for less than $200. Highly sophisticated models can cost tens of thousands of dollars, or more.
Drones for commercial use occupy a legal gray area. While for-profit drone use is banned by the FAA, the specific rules and regulations are unclear and the FAA has occasionally looked the other way, particularly in agricultural drone applications, experts say.
Last year, Congress passed the 2012 FAA Reauthorization Act, which mandates the agency develop a legal framework that would clear the way for commercial drone use by 2015.
“We intend to meet all congressional guidelines,” said FAA spokesman Les Dorr.
Given the complexity of the issue and the bureaucratic red tape in Washington, Waite said almost no one in the field believes the government will have drone laws written and implemented by 2015.
A report by the drone industry group Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International found that “every year that integration (of drones into the private sector of the economy) is delayed, the United States loses more than $10 billion in potential economic impact.”
Other developed countries, like Australia, allow companies that receive permission from the government to use drones for commercial purposes.
FAA regulations heavily restrict American drone manufacturers, who want the opportunity to export their products to countries that currently allow commercial drone use, from testing their products in American airspace.
“I think the FAA is one of the finest organizations on the planet,” said Paul Applewhite, owner of the drone manufacturer Applewhite Aero. “The are taking a very measured approach to unmanned aircraft.”
But Applewhite would like “a little flexibility” from the FAA in terms of allowing companies to safely and responsibly test their products in order to fill orders from companies, aid organizations and governments overseas.
“We could probably be exporting today,” Applewhite said. “But I don’t have a tested vehicle to sell them.”
By restricting American firms from testing drones, the FAA is putting domestic manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage with their foreign counterparts, Applewhite said.
“It’s very frustrating,” Applewhite said.
The FAA isn’t the only governmental body struggling to keep up with the legal ramifications of the recent increase in drone use. Lawmakers across the country have introduced drone-related legislation.
In Maryland, Delegate Ronald A. George, R-Anne Arundel, sponsored a bill that would limit the circumstances under which law enforcement agencies can use drone technology.
“We need to protect people’s civil rights from warrantless searches using drones,” George said. “There are people on both sides of the aisle that believe we have to define limits for the use of drones.”
Civil liberties groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have been actively pushing for laws to limit government and law enforcement drone use.
“Drones are coming to America,” said Sara Love, public policy director for the ACLU of Maryland, who testified in support of George’s bill. “It’s a good thing to get out in front of this issue.”
George’s bill, the only drone legislation offered in Maryland this year, failed to make it out of committee.
The bill was “stuck in a drawer” largely because committee members didn’t understand the issue or its importance, George said.
Hobbyists worry that increased drone regulations won’t only target law enforcement agencies.
“I would love to see the hobby aspect remain unregulated,” said Cyrus Phillips of Franconia, a drone enthusiast who attended the recent drone “fly-in” in Northern Virginia. “But that’s unlikely.”
“We’re going to have to accept some kind of regulation,” Phillips predicted.
Delegate George said that while he plans to reintroduce his drone bill next year, he won’t expand its scope beyond law enforcement.
“Drones are allowed for private recreational use,” George said. “And that will not change.”
Waite said he typically gets one of two reactions when he talks to someone about his work with drones.
“People either say, ‘This is so cool!’ or ‘We need to ban every one of them!’,” Waite said.
Drone technology is very cool, however, it does create a host of new ethical concerns, Waite said.
“If you only think (widespread use of drone technology) is cool and not a little bit creepy, you’re being naive,” Waite said.
Many civilian drone models are small and quiet enough to hover undetected outside of a bedroom window or trail a car through city streets from hundreds of feet in the air, which creates a litany of privacy concerns.
The dangers of personal drones made headlines briefly in March when an unmanned aircraft was spotted above the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
An Alitalia Airlines pilot told authorities a craft, described by the FBI as “as black in color and no more than three feet wide with four propellers,” was hovering within a few hundred feet of the plane’s flight path.
It is possible that the drone, either intentionally or accidentally, could have distracted the pilots or disrupted the mechanical function of the jet engines.
In a press release following the incident, FBI Special Agent John Giacalone expressed concern for the “safety of aircraft passengers and crew.”
A YouTube video posted late last year depicting a drone equipped with a paintball gun accurately hitting targets while in flight increased fears over the possible deadly use of drones.
But while “there is a long overdue conversation about privacy, safety and drones that needs to happen,” Waite said a lot of the recent drone-paranoia is overblown.
Some in the national security field have expressed concerns over the possible use of drones in terror plots, but most of the recorded misuses of drones have been more mischievous — scaring pizza delivery drivers or neighbors into thinking they’ve just seen a UFO — than nefarious.
Ten to 15 years down the line “we’re going to wonder what the fuss was all about,” Waite said. “We’re going be to completely bored with drones.”