Drones: they’re in your future but (hopefully) not in your path

Drones such as the jet-powered, high-flying RQ-4 Global Hawk made by Northrop Grumman have been successful in providing aerial coverage of recent catastrophic events like the tsunami in Japan and earthquake in Haiti. (U.S. Air Force / January 25, 2012)

In 2001, the US military had about 50 drones in its arsenal; now it has almost 7,500 and with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now being delegated mostly to contractors, they’re on their way home.

“The stuff from Afghanistan is going to come back,” Steve Pennington, the Air Force’s director of ranges, bases and airspace, said at the conference. The Department of Defense “doesn’t want a segregated environment. We want a fully integrated environment.”

That means the Pentagon wants the same rules for drones as any other military aircraft in the U.S. today.

There are many reasons being given for why this is a good idea.

These aircraft would be used to help train and retrain the pilots who fly the drones remotely, but they also are likely to find new roles at home in emergencies, helping firefighters see hot spots during wildfires or possibly even dropping water to combat the blaze.

Most drones are small, like the model airplanes you might see being flown in the park by hobbyists. But there are hundreds of larger ones, like the one pictured above.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says that these flying robots do not have an adequate “detect, sense and avoid” technology to prevent midair collisions and they haven’t been allowed into domestic airspace without special certification. Over 300 certificates were issued last year, mostly to unarmed drones used to patrol the borders although the FAA refused to disclose the recipients.

Last week Congress passed legislation requiring the FAA to produce a plan to integrate all types of drones into our airspace by 2015.

That means permitting unmanned drones controlled by remote operators on the ground to fly in the same airspace as airliners, cargo planes, business jets and private aircraft.

What could possibly go wrong?

(And that’s just the traffic problems. What about privacy?)