Drone defenders, including the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, say those fears are overblown and threaten the potential economic benefits of commercial drones. The group predicts 70,000 new U.S. jobs and a nearly $14 billion economic boost.
“These concerns have had an impact on us,” said Ben Gielow, the general counsel for the unmanned-vehicle group. “There is a widespread belief that these are just military systems for persistent domestic surveillance. That’s just not the case.”
Right now, drones operate under the same rules as radio-
controlled planes. Commercial use is not legal, meaning Good could not, for instance, start a drone wedding-ring delivery service. Congress has mandated that the Federal Aviation Administration come up with rules by 2015 to integrate drones into the nation’s airspace. Hobbyists are supposed to fly the devices below 400 feet.
That has not stopped scores of devices from entering the market. There are generally three types of personal drones available.
There is the toy market, which features devices such as the Parrot AR.Drone. It sells for $300 and can be bought online, at the mall or even through the online Apple store. The drone is controlled with an iPhone and operates over WiFi, recording what happens below.
Many newbies start off with the Parrot and eventually graduate to more sophisticated devices, such as the fully autonomous drones sold for upwards of $600 by 3D Robotics, a California company run by Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired magazine, who gave up words for drones.
Anderson said the company, founded in 2009, was generating $5 million a year in sales early on and is now growing 100 percent year over year. His drones can fly for 15 or 20 minutes, with HD cameras attached. If a big gust of wind comes along, the drone knows how to stabilize itself.
And then there are the $20,000-and-above drones, such as the Falcon UAV that police departments are purchasing. They can fly for hours at a time and coordinate with surveillance systems on the ground.
Last month, at Davis Airport in Laytonsville, more than three dozen members of the D.C. drone group gathered for a fly-in. The group included men with their grandsons progressing from remote-
controlled planes, photographers and filmmakers hoping to integrate drones into their work, and military contractors such as Ken Druce, who was zooming his drone through the air when another drone came spiraling down to the earth not far from his feet.