WASHINGTON — 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, the word “drone” conjures images of lethal spy planes raining down missiles.
That perception doesn’t bode well for burgeoning drone companies looking to shake up the civil aviation sector and convince government regulators — and the public — that unmanned vehicles can be used off of the battlefield in new, safe and uncontroversial ways.
If they succeed, drone manufacturers will capture a piece of what the Teal Group, a research firm, estimates will be an $11 billion business over the next decade.
Hundreds of drone manufacturers and suppliers crowded into booths at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center this week at the Unmanned Systems conference to pitch drones that could be used to map glacier lakes for climate-change research, shoot movie scenes or help first responders with search-and-rescue missions.
Compared with military drones, these commercial unmanned vehicles tend to be smaller, lighter and unarmed, but they face a significant hurdle: unfettered access to the skies. The Federal Aviation Administration is still deliberating on how to integrate unmanned vehicles into domestic airspace.
Critics fear that drones could endanger commercial air travelers and question whether the unmanned aircraft are reliable enough to fly in domestic airspace. Wide use of unmanned vehicles also has raised privacy concerns among groups worried that the planes could be used for intrusive surveillance missions.
“The FAA is proceeding very cautiously. We can’t have the skies darkened by flying robots without a robust system of protecting the safety of people in the air and on the ground,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The fact that drones are so heavily associated with, let’s say, ‘highly controversial overseas uses’ I think has hurt drones’ image domestically,” Stanley said. “But if people keep in the back of their heads how terrible this technology can be, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
Developers at all stages of the drone supply chain are pushing to soften the industry’s reputation.
A drone flying above a vineyard can tell which grapes will yield the best wine, said Jonathan Downey, chief executive of Airware, which develops autopilot controllers for commercial drone makers. In one case, he said, a winery was able to boost its profits after using a drone to identify the highest-quality grapes for a special batch instead of unknowingly mixing them into a lower-quality product.
Filmmakers are aggressively seeking more access to drones. Summer blockbusters are growing increasingly reliant on acrobatic aerial footage, said Tom Hallman, an aerial cinematographer. But helicopters with human pilots can be too unwieldy for some missions or too costly.
“Unmanned aerial vehicles are a great alternative,” Hallman said. “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 private companies aren’t the only ones looking to deploy unmanned systems.
A team of U.S. Air Force Academy graduates has designed the Pipe Snake, a telescoping robot that can climb vertical plumbing shafts and even navigate curved pipes to locate victims of natural disasters. The Pipe Snake can carry medical supplies or other payloads, giving victims in inaccessible places a shot at immediate attention while first responders figure out what to do next.
But for now, the industry’s ability to take to the skies is limited.
That’s because the FAA grants certificates allowing unmanned vehicles to fly in U.S. airspace on a case-by-case basis. The agency won’t complete development of a process to grant licenses more broadly until 2015 — part of a wider congressional mandate to integrate drones into U.S. airspace protocols.
Once the regulatory framework for drones weighing 55 pounds or less is completed, the air will be filled with 7,500 such devices at the end of five years, according to an agency spokesman.
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, including Virginia and Maryland, are competing for the right to host the six test sites.
Once the rules on drones become clearer, industry proponents argue, they will 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,” Hallman said, “and out will pop a lot of creative alternatives.”
If “alternatives” and “systems” are the new code words for “drone,” the industry’s leading spokesmen are doing a good job of nudging the discourse in that direction. But not everyone is being so subtle. At the conference’s press center, the WiFi network password took a knowing – and perhaps somewhat exasperated – tone. What did the conference organizers settle on?