Drones move from the war zone to the heartland

BY RICK MONTGOMERY The Kansas City Star

SALINA, KAN. — The drones are coming.

In fact, Kansas State University sees something of a drone nation beyond the horizon.

Which is why, a few years ago, the college launched a bachelor’s degree program in operating airborne robots. Some call them UAS, or unmanned aircraft systems. Others prefer the term UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles.

To you, they’re drones — just not the ones that launch weapons.

Large swaths of the civilian world, from first responders to ranchers, real estate agents, park rangers and even some golf-course superintendents, are pining for the remote cameras and potential cost-savings of a well-guided drone compared to manned flight.

The most famous of the military drones, the Predator, has proved in Pakistan and Afghanistan its skills at gathering intelligence and firing missiles at suspected terrorists — at no risk to the pilot looking at a video screen on the ground.

Here at home, less-muscled drones are now regularly deployed by dozens of public agencies to scan crime scenes, search for people lost in the woods and snoop on drug deals.

Drones inspect crop damage. Chart drought patterns. Monitor hurricanes. Catch illegal immigrants crossing the border.