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For a world already on edge about NSA spying, drone technology is just another reason to keep looking over our shoulders.
With the Feds spying on us via the Internet, phones, and now revelations they are using surveillance drones it may only a matter of time before tinfoil hats become functional fashion.
FBI Director Robert Mueller told a Senate Judiciary Committee that his agency uses drones for domestic surveillance. In truth, the FBI is just one a long list of private companies and government agencies already using drones domestically.
Despite laws banning the use of domestic drones in the United States hundreds have already taken flight snapping pictures for realtors, working on farms, filming Hollywood movies, and yes patrolling the skies looking for lawbreakers. Here is a look at present and not-so-far-off uses for domestic drones flying our friendly skies.
Down on the farm
Drone companies say their aircraft are safe and reliable and not a threat to people or privacy. The business of drones is ready to grow, they argue. Unlike the military where Predator drones spy and attack an enemy, scads of private companies are itching to put drones to work here in the US.
Agriculture use of drones is one of the biggest areas of growth, says the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a drone trade association. Yamaha's 9-foot long Rmax autonomous helicopter can carry a 62-pound payload and spray 2 acres of farmland in 6 minutes.
You should have been in pictures
According to the AUVSI drones will add 70,000 jobs and $13.6 billion to the US economy within the first three years drones are permitted for commercial flight.
The Motion Picture Association of America and the National Football League have both petitioned the FAA to loosen rules on commercial drone use ahead of 2015. Both want to use the technology reduce production costs that sometimes require renting helicopters and using mammoth skybooms for getting top-down shots.
The video camera above is mounted on the film production company Kaspi's octocopter.
Not quite legal
Domestic drone technology is not the type of military drones that fly missions over Afghanistan. These hovercraft and helicopter-like drones are very similar to the aircraft that amateurs fly on weekends. If the FAA hasn't given you special permission to fly drones commercially, then companies that sell their drone services within the U.S. are breaking FAA regulations and could face stiff penalties.
The AeriCam shown here is used by aerial photo and video firm SkyShutter.
What would Les Nessman do?
Austrian drone maker Schiebel was recently pitching its 10-foot long drone Camcopter drone to TV broadcasters. Schiebel says its drones can be a cost effective alternative to owning a helicopter. According to an article posted on Gigaom, Schiebel was showing off its Camcopter S-100 at a meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters looking for customers earlier this year.
Almost like being there
Advanced drones can either be piloted by line-of-sight or carry GPS technology onboard so they can be pre-programmed to fly a specific route autonomously. Drones can also be flown using special headwear (see image) that allows the pilot to see through the drone's viewfinder. This is called first-person view flying and helps aerial videographers to capture breathtaking video footage.
Drones such as this Aeryon Scout, made by Aeryon Labs, are used in Alaska by oil giant BP to keep a birds-eye view of miles of oil pipeline. BP says drones like these can be extremely useful in remote parts of the Arctic to track down pipeline leaks. Drones cost a fraction of the expense of hiring a helicopter to perform the same task.
The Aeryon Scout can capture images while scanning pipelines with a heat-sensing camera to detect leaks.
It's a wild, wild life
In Safford, Arizona the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is using this 36-inch long Raven RQ-11a drone with a 4.5-foot wingspan to fly above the San Simon Valley to monitor the impact of climate change on wildlife. The drone, the same type used for surveillance in Afghanistan, is battery operated, can fly for 80 minutes at 30 miles an hour, and can transmit video or infrared imagery to a laptop nine miles away.
The Raven drone has also been used in Colorado to count sandhill cranes. Drones are also being deployed in parts of Africa to monitor and protect wildlife from poachers.
Fighting fire with... water
In 2011, Grand Junction, Colorado's Presbyterian church suffered a devastating fire that caused extensive structural damage. When a firefighter fell through a wooden floor while battling the smoldering remains of the blaze officials pulled remaining fire crews out of the church and called for drone support. The local sheriff department used aDraganflyer X6 UAV VTOL helicopter-style drone outfitted with thermal infrared camera to pinpoint hot spots to soak with water.
The image shows the Draganflyer X6 and the Presbyterian Church that burned. For a complete list of all law enforcement agencies that have been approved by the FAA to use drones, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has a complete list.
Long wing of the law
Law enforcement use of drones is on the rise. Drones are considered an affordable alternative for local and state law enforcement officials to owning a helicopter. The cost savings, according to Texas' Montgomery County Sherriff's Office, is $30 an hour to operate a Shadowhawk drone versus $500 an hour for a helicopter.
The police helicopter-style drone pictured here comes equipped with a high-definition camera and infrared sensors for detecting and tracking objects from below. Mesa County has purchased a second drone from Falcon UAV that it credits for locating lost hikers in a remote area.
There's a map for that
This image is of Colorado's Red Rocks Amphitheater captured by a Falcon UAV drone. The Colorado firm DroneMapper transforms aerial images captured by its drones into maps that include elevation, digital surface modeling, and 3D images.
Engineers use drones to gain valuable perspectives on worksites and to capture geological topography.
I'm learning to fly, but I ain't got wings
Over two dozen universities offer programs relating drone technology. At the University of North Dakota's John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, students can earn a degree in Unmanned Aircraft Systems. The student pictured here is one of 44 students at UND seeking a degree in drone technology. The student is holding a Boeing Scan Eagle unmanned aircraft at a test site in Oslo, Minn.
I’ll take mine to go
Hungry for some tacos or Domino's pizza? I personally doubt either fast food will be available for delivery via a drone ever, but if a San Francisco startup gets its business plan off the ground it hopes to deliver tacos to hungry residents via a TacoCopter drone.
Not to be outdone, Domino's Pizza has released a proof-of-concept video showing how its pizzas could also be delivered via a drone it calls a DomiCopter. According to an NBC report, Domino's Pizza flew a test flight of two large hot pepperoni pizzas 4 miles to a hungry customer logging a delivery time of 10 minutes.
The Federal Highway Administration and the Georgia Department of Transportation are testing the use of autonomous drones to monitor the state's highways and bridges. Equipped with cameras and laser mapping technology the drone (pictured here) can alert officials to traffic jams, accidents, and bridge conditions.
Georgia Institute of Technology's CONECTech Lab has partnered with Fort Benning's Maneuver Battle Lab to spearhead the tests. Drones fly autonomously based on preprogrammed flight plans and can maneuver their way around unexpected obstacles if needed. Right now the drone is limited to flying in only Georgia's Fort Benning airspace, according to the Ledger-Enquirer.
I can see for miles and miles
For years now, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has used Predator drones for surveillance flights near the Mexican border. Drones are operated by the U.S. Office of Air and Marines. The Predator drones are about the size of a Cessna airplane and provide real-time surveillance of the entire 1950-mile border between Mexico and the U.S.
The drone program has expanded over the years. NASA and the U.S. Forest Services have also enlisted Predator B drones to monitor wildfires, according to NASA.
Our house is a very, very fine house
The most common use for drones in the U.S. is capturing video and still images to promote real estate and create electronic travel brochures. Helicon is one such company with an impressive portfolio of video and still images of properties. A search on Google delivers dozens of U.S.-based companies advertising drone-related video and photography real estate services. According to FAA rules, these companies are operating illegally.
A Freedom of Information Act request by television station WRTV in Indianapolis, Ind. revealed that the FAA has launched 23 investigations into illegal drones, 10 drone operators have received warning letters, and 5 unauthorized drones have been spotted by pilots flying in the U.S.