MICHELE NORRIS, host:
We're going to hear now about a new kind of drone. I'm talking about the unmanned remote-controlled aircraft the U.S. military has been using for years to conduct surveillance and launch attacks on isolated targets. Well, small homemade versions of these flying robots have become widely popular, first with hobbyists and now with entrepreneurs.
NPR's Carrie Kahn reports that the tiny civilian aircraft may have lots of potential, but the government isn't quite sure how to deal with them.
CARRIE KAHN: In a field west of Los Angeles, John Steiner(ph) throws a handheld drone into the air.
(Soundbite of field)
Mr. JOHN STEINER: OK. So, here we go. Clear prop.
Unidentified Man: It's clear.
KAHN: Within seconds, the four-pound plane rises so high, it's almost out of sight.
(Soundbite of drone)
Mr. STEINER: You can barely hear it when it's flying overhead.
KAHN: And that's the point. Equipped with a camera, the drone made by AeroVironment is used by the military. Small enough to fit in a soldier's backpack, it's easily assembled and launched to scout out potential enemies. The company makes three different sizes, all lightweight, even a radio reporter can launch one.
You got to have a good arm on you.
(Soundbite of drone)
KAHN: Oh, that was a wimpy throw.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KAHN: But not too wimpy. The drone flew and sent back pictures, including live video of the surrounding areas.
Steve Gitlin of AeroVironment thinks about the commercial applications for these small flying machines. Instead of launching expensive helicopters, for example, law enforcement can throw up a drone. Monitoring miles of oil pipelines would be easier with the auto-piloted aircraft. And they could be used in counting wildlife or even tracking movie stars.
Mr. STEVE GITLIN (AeroVironment): Paparazzi have been contacting us for years with an interest in using our systems for those kinds of missions. We can probably sell it to them. But that doesn't mean the FAA is going to let them use it.
KAHN: In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration does not allow small aircraft like these to be used commercially. The FAA declined repeated requests for an interview. But in an email, the agency said it's working on new rules governing use of some small unmanned aircraft.
Chris Anderson runs a website called DIY Drones. It's a clearinghouse for drone hobbyists around the world. He says like the Internet, drones got their start with the military. In the past few years, the technology has rapidly expanded and become widely available on the Internet. Anderson says it's time to let hobbyists and entrepreneurs discover the next great thing to be done with the flying robots.
Mr. CHRIS ANDERSON (DIY Drones): Entrepreneurs and little guys and amateurs figure out cool things, which then get scaled up into huge industries. And I think it's important in our regulatory process that we don't stifle the little guys.
KAHN: Rory Paul is one of those little guys.
(Soundbite of motor)
Mr. RORY PAUL: OK. And what I'm going to do is I'm going to start up the motor.
(Soundbite of motor)
KAHN: He's going to do a prop check of his drone, which is sitting on his dining room table in his home outside Los Angeles. It's equipped with a digital and infrared camera. Paul hopes to sell it to large-scale farmers so they can survey their crops and boost yields. Paul built his drone back in 2005 and has been waiting ever since for the FAA's okay.
Mr. PAUL: I got into this hoping that we would have policy in place that we could operate commercial business providing a service to farmers and it hasn't happened.
KAHN: Paul says he'll wait and hope that the FAA will be fair to small operators who want to exploit the technology for good. But what about those up to no good? That's what worries Jay Stanley of the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Program.
Mr. JAY STANLEY (Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Program): The prospect of sort of small flying autonomous cameras everywhere in the skies raises the prospect of, you know, pervasive aerial surveillance in a way that we've never really seen before.
KAHN: Chris Anderson of DIY Drones says anything can be exploited for bad, but worries that such fears will limit drone technology, which he says is just in its infancy.
Mr. ANDERSON: To use the computer analogy, we're in about 1977.
KAHN: And he says the possibilities of what drones can do have yet to be discovered.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
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