Six reasons 2013 was an amazing year for drones

December 26, 2013

An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan in 2010. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)

2013 was a big year for unmanned vehicles. The word "drone" became so common that manufacturers, unhappy with the term's close linkage to targeted strikes in faraway regions, began waging a quiet campaign of their own to stop people from saying it out loud. Yes, it's a silly kind of public relations battle. But the industry has a point: This was the year that we became aware of drones as more than killing machines. We started to understand how they might reshape commerce and transportation and even ethics. Below, six moments in 2013 that pushed drones into the public spotlight.

1) Amazon.


(Amazon.com)

Let's get this one out of the way first. The online retailer unveiled its plans to start shipping five-pound packages by delivery drone sometime in the next five years. To its CEO (and Washington Post top dog) Jeff Bezos, it's a sensible step in Amazon's quest to meet our need for instant gratification. To the rest of us, it sounded like an idea out of science fiction. Deliveries in 30 minutes or less? Crazy! But Bezos has been known to make wild investments before.

2) Washington began grappling with drone regulation.

Part of the reason why Amazon had to shoot its promotional video abroad was because U.S. regulations don't permit the use of drones for commercial purposes in national airspace. Other countries are considered far ahead of us on that count, and some fear the United States could get left behind as the world dumps $89 billion into aerial drones over the next decade. To catch up, the Federal Aviation Administration came out with a hugely anticipated roadmap in November for safely integrating drones into the civilian airspace. By next summer, the FAA is expected to grant wider permissions to owners of small drones (at or under 55 pounds), with larger commercial drones following in the year(s) after.

3) The FAA named several key sites for drone testing. 


(FAA)

This technically hasn't happened yet. But sometime within the next week the FAA is set to announce a series of six test ranges across the country that will be used to study how drones will affect our safety and privacy. Twenty-four states ranging from New York to Nevada have applied for the honor. It's a major part of the aforementioned plan to draft new drone regulations. An FAA spokesperson tells me that despite the rapid approach of 2014, the agency is still on track to make a final decision by year's end.

4) Obama vowed to review his policy on drone strikes. 


(Pitch Interactive)

The president's controversial use of drones to perform targeted killings drew widespread criticism, particularly in the wake of the 2011 killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born terrorist suspect. In May, Obama gave a speech at the National Defense University in which he admitted that the CIA's drone program, while legal, may not always be "wise or moral in every instance." A Gallup poll two months before showed that the public was deeply divided over the issue, with just 41 percent saying drones should be used against U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism-related activity abroad. In theory, the White House is shifting responsibility for drone strikes to the military — a move aimed at increasing transparency and accountability. But as the New York Times notes, the transfer has been slow.

5) We learned about a secret program to test drones at Area 51. 


Project AQUILINE (U.S. Government/George Washington University National Security Archives)

Speaking of the CIA, a set of documents dropped this year granting us unprecedented insight into the agency's early research on drones during the Vietnam War. As the country kept losing U-2 spy planes, officials started a couple of projects that were ultimately abandoned, but not before producing working prototypes that were flown at Area 51. One design was even fashioned into a kind of missile after the researchers determined that it was too noisy to use for reconnaissance.

6) A Colorado town proposed open season on drones. 

Deer Trail, Colo., has about 600 residents — and they're not friendly at all to unmanned vehicles. A town vote scheduled for this month would have made it legal to hunt drones, with licenses and everything. The idea's proponents argue that it simply gives them a way to defend against aerial trespassing. But the proposal also contains bounties for salvaged hardware: Up to $100 for every government-owned drone. Unfortunately, the referendum itself has been postponed and likely won't be held until next year.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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