When is a drone not a drone?
When the people who manufacture them say so.
That's their hope, at any rate. The drone industry — sorry, the unmanned aerial systems industry — is in the midst of a massive rebranding campaign. For most Americans today, the word "drone" conjures images of lethal spy planes raining missiles down on targets in foreign theaters of war. But that perception doesn't bode well for a burgeoning set of drone companies looking to shake up the civil aviation sector.
So those firms spent the week in Washington trying to convince inside-the-Beltway types that unmanned systems can be used off the battlefield in new, safe and uncontroversial ways. If they succeed in changing the narrative, drone manufacturers will have paved the way toward what some experts think is a $400 billion business in waiting.
Developers at all stages of the drone supply chain are involved in the unofficial messaging push. Jonathan Downey is CEO of Airware, which develops autopilot controllers for commercial drone makers. Downey said that with the right equipment, an agricultural drone flying above a vineyard can tell which grapes will yield the best wine. In one case, he told me, one winery was able to boost its profits by setting aside the highest-quality grapes for a special batch instead of unknowingly mixing them into a lower-quality product.
Filmmakers are also keen to drive home the economic point. Summer blockbusters are growing increasingly reliant on acrobatic aerial footage that only drones can capture safely and cheaply. Helicopters with human pilots are either too unwieldy for such missions, or too costly.
"Unmanned aerial vehicles are a great alternative," said Tom Hallman, an aerial cinematographer. "Just throw them in the back of a truck and drive out there. You can fly through bridges, flying very close."
The film industry's flirtation with drone technology is a highly visible example of how the market for unmanned systems is expanding. But Hollywood is uniquely positioned to take advantage of drones in ways that the average U.S. company currently isn't. That's because commercial drone licenses are only being given out on a case-by-case basis, subject to approval by the Federal Aviation Administration. It won't be until 2015 at least before the FAA develops a process to grant licenses more broadly — part of a wider congressional mandate to integrate drones into U.S. airspace protocols.
The FAA expects that once it unveils the regulatory framework for small drones weighing 55 pounds or less, the air will be filled with 7,500 such devices at the end of five years.
Before that can happen, however, the FAA is required to establish a number of test sites where officials can demonstrate that drones are safe to fly. Two dozen states are currently competing for the right to host the sites.
Private companies aren't the only ones looking to deploy unmanned systems for civil applications. First responders and local officials have an eye toward using them for search-and-rescue operations. To locate victims of natural disasters who may be trapped under rubble, a team of U.S. Air Force Academy graduates designed the Pipe Snake, a telescoping robot that can climb vertical plumbing shafts and even navigate curved pipes successfully. The Pipe Snake can carry medical or other payloads, giving victims in inaccessible places a shot of immediate attention while first-responders figure out what to do next.
Among the other tools the graduates developed is a sticky sensor that can be fired from a paintball gun. The projectiles, which attach to surfaces using fishhooks and are packed with infrared and audio equipment, are designed to provide real-time intelligence about who might be pinned under rubble or trapped in a room.
Once the rules on drones become more clear, industry proponents argue, it'll set off a burst of innovation as entrepreneurs who are currently working by themselves start collaborating with others.
"A lot of people are going to roll up their garage doors," said Hallman, "and out will pop a lot of creative alternatives."
If "alternatives" and "systems" are the new codewords for "drone," the industry's leading spokespeople are doing a good job nudging the discourse in that direction. But not everyone is being so subtle. At the conference's press center, the Wi-Fi network password took a knowing — and perhaps somewhat exasperated — tone. What did the conference organizers settle on?