The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and elsewhere) have driven the rapid development over the past decade of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—robotic planes flown by some combination of remote “pilot” operators, software, and GPS navigation. Ranging in size from that of a flying model kit to full-sized aircraft, UAVs, also referred to as unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), have done everything from spotting roadside bombs to bombing alleged Al-Qaeda hideouts—and now they’re ready for civilian jobs. As war efforts wind down, the military is preparing to bring home the over 7,500 UAVs deployed overseas—and the companies that build them are looking to create a domestic market for the technology.
Federal Aviation Administration rules have so far tightly limited the use of UAVs to the same sets of rules applied to hobbyists flying radio-controlled model aircraft. But all that is set to change, thanks to legislation slipped into the FAA’s 2012 funding bill, signed on February 14. The law is pushing the FAA to stop worrying and love the drone by setting deadlines for starting UAVs’ “integration into the national airspace.” The FAA is now soliciting public input on locations for six test sites where it will look at ways to integrate UAVs into the same airspace as human-piloted aircraft.