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We hear a lot about drones these days, those unmanned aerial vehicles - or UAVs - that have transformed the battlefield in Afghanistan and led to continuing protests in Pakistan, where they're used against militants. Get ready, though. The drones will eventually be showing up in American skies. These drones won't be armed. The first ones are just for fun. But as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, police in the U.S. and an entire industry are preparing for a remotely-controlled future.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: For a long time, drones have been exotic, expensive, out of reach for all but military users. But today, a clever hobbyist can have his own eye in the sky.

ANDREAS OESTERER: Ready?

MARK HARRISON: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE ENGINE)

ABRAMSON: On most weekends, you'll find Andreas Oesterer and his buddy Mark Harrison flying a homemade, unmanned aerial vehicle Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley, California.

It's definitely unarmed. In fact, it looks more like a fun model plane than an instrument of fear. But as Oesterer flies his plane around the park, you can see how much power is available for a couple thousand dollars.

OESTERER: And now I'm flicking the switch here.

ABRAMSON: Oesterer sets the plane on autopilot and puts the controls down. The plane follows a lazy, predetermined path. It's smart enough to stay airborne, and it's outfitted with a camera that provides a wide view of this bayside park.

OESTERER: Now I'm going to sit down, put on my goggles.

ABRAMSON: Oesterer dons homemade video goggles. Instantly, it's as if he's in the pilot's seat, a hundred or so feet up in the air, looking down on us.

OESTERER: So I see the spot where we're sitting.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE ENGINE)

ABRAMSON: Hobbyists like Oesterer are excited. So are big companies that have been working on this technology for years. John Langford is CEO of Aurora Flight Sciences, which makes unmanned components for the military, and has been designing drones for scientists for decades.

JOHN LANGFORD: I think the distinction between an unmanned airplane and a manned airplane is arbitrary and vanishing, honestly.

ABRAMSON: Right now, the Federal Aviation Administration treats unmanned and manned vehicles completely differently. If you want to fly a manned plane, you just have to file a flight plan. For unmanned vehicles, you have to get special authorization from the FAA, and commercial use is still not allowed. But new legislation says the FAA must reduce that divide over the next few years. John Langford says these vehicles will soon be part of our lives.

LANGFORD: The civilian market will emerge. The technology has moved faster than the regulation. And the regulations have to evolve and catch up with it. It will happen. We're right in the middle of that process today.

ABRAMSON: But why do we need drones here at home? For years, scientists have found them useful for doing air sampling, for example. But now, police departments see these vehicles as the next cool tool, from big cities like Miami, to not-so-big places like Grand Junction, Colorado.

BEN MILLER: My name is Ben Miller, and I'm the unmanned aircraft program manager for the Mesa County sheriff's office.

ABRAMSON: Ben Miller says his agency in rural western Colorado has purchased two small, camera-equipped drones. They came in handy recently for a pretty basic function: gathering evidence after extensive vandalism at a local public school.

MILLER: We went out and were able to fly over the damaged area and took a series of still images looking straight down, and then brought them back to the office and stitched them together with a compositing software that basically lays in the pictures like a mosaic.

ABRAMSON: Which is proving useful in the prosecution of that schoolyard crime. Search-and-rescue teams also see great potential here. Ben Miller says his drone recently helped some wayward hikers. They were lost, but they weren't dying, not worth bringing in a helicopter.

MILLER: We probably wouldn't have been able to justify the expenses to put manned aviation. But now there we're flying at $25 an hour, its' kind of a no-brainer for us.

ABRAMSON: But for others, the specter of unmanned aerial systems patrolling the homeland has sparked a call to arms.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: I don't want regulations. I don't want restrictions. I want a ban on this. Drones are instruments of war.

ABRAMSON: That's conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer on Fox News not too long ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

KRAUTHAMMER: And I would predict - I'm not encouraging, but I'm predicting - the first guy who uses a Second Amendment weapon to bring a drone down that's been hovering over his house is going to be a folk hero in this country.

ABRAMSON: The UAV industry was horrified at the suggestion that drones need to be shot down. After years of selling its wares to the military, the unmanned vehicle industry is desperately trying to depict the next generation of domestic drones as friendly, more Robbie the Robot than HAL the computer. But you can't blame people for getting the wrong idea if you look at online ads pitching drones to law enforcement.

(SOUNDBITE OF AEROVIRONMENT ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Positive ID of a gun in his right hand. I repeat: There is a gun in the suspect's right hand. Proceed with caution.

ABRAMSON: This video is from AeroVironment, a California-based company preparing to sell smaller drones to police. In the ad, cops pull the little unmanned plane out of their cruiser's trunk, quickly assemble it, and used it to monitor the movements of an armed suspect. From the air, the UAV shows them that the bad guy is setting up an ambush.

(SOUNDBITE OF AEROVIRONMENT ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The suspect, moving to northeast side of the house. Now suspect is moving northwest.

ABRAMSON: While police are eager to keep an eye on criminals, civil liberties groups warn that UAVs are tailor-made to spy on you.

Jennifer Lynch with the Electronic Frontier Foundation says many police departments plan to use drones to photograph public gatherings, just as they do with helicopters.

JENNIFER LYNCH: But with the advent of facial recognition and the ability to store images for a long period of time, it becomes really worrisome when you have a drone hovering over that kind of a situation. And it's not clear at this point what kind of legal restrictions would prevent that activity.

ABRAMSON: Lynch and others say now is the time to pass legislation to limit drone use by police, before these things become commonplace. But fans of unmanned aviation caution that more restrictions could stifle innovation.

Right now, there are thousands of small companies in this field. And hobbyists like Mark Harrison in California - whose day job is at Pixar - see the drone era as the next frontier, as a marketplace that could power the next economic boom.

HARRISON: I personally think that it'll be a lot like the PC industry in the 1970s. You know, there were just dozens or hundreds of little, itty-bitty companies all trying to fill the various niches.

ABRAMSON: Harrison hopes that as drones find new uses, there will still be room for small tinkerers to innovate. One innovation that Harrison and his friend Andreas Oesterer have come up with is a powerful, six-bladed helicopter, strong enough, he says, to lift eight pounds of gear.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER ENGINE)

ABRAMSON: They punch the controls, and their creation shot off into the fog.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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