Unmanned drones aren't just a tool for governments anymore. By as early as this year, the Federal Aviation Administration expects to propose regulations opening up the use of small, unmanned airborne vehicles — or drones — for commercial use.
Tens of thousands of these little, civilian drones are sold and piloted by hobbyists in the United States every year. Right now these drones are flown almost exclusively for non-commercial uses by enthusiast like Pablo Lema. Lema spends weekends flying his quardracopter around the San Francisco Bay.
"I don't like to call it a drone," he says. "It is a remote aerial vehicle that I can control wearing some goggles with a camera that records the flight so I can go beyond line of sight. And I use it just for fun — shooting around the bay, doing some fun videos."
Because Lema stayed away from airports and flew below 400 feet, his flights are legal in the eyes of the FAA. But if he were to use his videos for commercial purposes, he would be breaking the law under FAA regulations.
Nick, another pilot who asked NPR not to use his last name, makes money off his flight videos, and is therefore breaking FAA rules.
Nick began his career as a photojournalist at a newspaper but quit after seeing many of his co-workers laid off. He later invested in a couple of small 25-pound drones and now makes his living shooting airborne films. Unfortunately, this means he's working in an illegal market.
"If this venture falls apart or the FAA comes along and tells me I can't be doing this, I have no idea what I'd do," he says. "It could turn out very badly."
While the FAA deems commercial drone flights illegal, many companies look at the positive applications these unmanned airborne vehicles may have, especially overseas. Jonathan Downey, the CEO and founder of Airware, is excited by what these machines can do to help the world.
"One of the applications that we're most excited about was a customer that came to us, a conservancy in Kenya that's going to be using a drone very soon for anti-poaching operations there," he says. "They have four of the last seven northern white rhino in the whole world."
Airware develops software that can autonomously pilot drones for hours. It's also built so any kind of sensor can be plugged into the drone to help direct it. The drone can then do anything from sniffing the air for chemicals to tracking heat signatures to sense motion.
Chris Dixon of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz compares these systems to the Microsoft Windows operating system for computers.
"Like Windows, you can plug different devices ... different printers and hard drives or whatever into the hardware," Dixon says.
Firms like Andreessen Horowitz and Google Ventures invest tens of millions of dollars in companies like Airware. The next big thing to hit this market, Dixon says, will be the FAA guidelines that will come by 2015.
"In 2015, we're expecting some very specific guidelines that balance privacy and safety and commercial interests and a bunch of other things," Dixon says. "Until then, I think it's a lot of gray area."
Nick, the commercial drone pilot, is trying to build a business working in that gray area. Although he flies drones illegally, he says he would welcome regulations.
"I don't like having to feel like I need to be sneaky or feel like I am a drug dealer or something," he says. "I really love what I do and want it to be a legit business."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Usually, when we talk about drones on this program, we are reporting on a strike against terrorist suspects in Yemen or Pakistan. Well, a lot of people - and businesses - are eager to begin using unmanned aerial vehicles here in the United States. They range from drone manufacturers themselves to police departments, farmers, photographers and hobbyists. And officials at all levels of government are grappling with what to do about it.
Out in Silicon Valley, NPR's tech correspondent Steve Henn stumbled upon a perfect illustration of the current state of the drone industry.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: A couple months ago, on a beautiful spring day in mid-March, I went for a run along a local creek and up toward the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. My goal was Stanford's dish, a giant radio telescope that's visible for miles. Along the way, I passed two separate groups of folks flying drones. So I whipped out my smartphone and started recording.
I walked up to you because you are actually the second drone pilot I've seen on my run today.
PABLO LEMA: Yeah.
LEMA: Yeah. It's funny. You saw a guy with an octocopter, which is a - you know, those are professional. Those are for carrying Red cameras, big SLRs.
HENN: But Pablo Lema is just a hobbyist.
LEMA: So what I have here is called a quadcopter. It's fairly well-known. I don't like to call it a drone. But...
LEMA: ...it is a remote aerial vehicle that I can control wearing some goggles, with a camera that records the flight. So I can go beyond line of sight.
HENN: It's just a few pounds and it has a tiny, GoPro camera mounted to it.
LEMA: And I use it just for fun - shooting around the Bay, doing some cool videos.
HENN: So we're standing on the top of the dish, in Stanford, right now.
HENN: Maybe - I don't know, a quarter of a mile from the dish itself.
HENN: Describe the flight you just took.
LEMA: Yeah, so I flew up - first around myself, just to check and make sure there was no - radio waves around here that would drown me out.
HENN: Then Lema flew more than a quarter of a mile, up to a multimillion-dollar radio telescope, over paths and trees and people. And on the way back, he wove through a grove of oaks. You can a see a recording of his flight on our website. And because Lema stayed away from airports and below 400 feet, his flight was perfectly legal - kosher, in the eyes of the FAA.
But the other drone pilot I met that day, named Nick, asked us not to use his last name because when he took flight, he was breaking the law.
NICK: Most of what I was shooting is kind of just maybe 10, 15 feet off the creek, and just getting these long shots just over the river.
HENN: The film was for an environmental group. Nick is a licensed pilot. And he was flying in an area with fewer people. He was closer to the ground, and he never flew the drone past his line of sight. But Nick's flight was illegal because Nick was being paid.
NICK: I mean, I'd welcome regulations. I don't like having to feel like I need to be sneaky or, you know, feel like I'm a drug dealer or something. I really love what I do and want it to be a legit business.
HENN: Nick began his career as a photojournalist at a newspaper, but his colleagues were losing their jobs. So he decided to rack up debt on his credit card and invest in a couple small, 25-pound drones. Now, he makes his living taking incredible airborne films. But this means Nick's working in an illegal market.
JONATHAN DOWNEY: Today, the FAA really has only one rule, which is no UAVs for commercial applications.
HENN: Jonathan Downey is the CEO and founder of Airware. His company makes software that autonomously pilots small UAVs, or drones.
DOWNEY: One of the applications that we're most excited about was a customer that came to us - a conservancy in Kenya that's going to be using a drone very soon, for anti-poaching operations there. They have four of the last seven northern white rhino in the whole world.
HENN: The system can pilot the drones for hours independently, and alert rangers if there's a problem. In Kenya, these drones will be programmed to read RFID tags on the rhinos. But Airware's system is built so you can plug in almost any kind of sensor, to use it to help direct the drone. Drones running the software could sniff the air for chemicals, track heat signatures or sense motion.
CHRIS DIXON: Think of it as like, you know, Microsoft Windows or something. It's an operating system. And like Windows, you can plug different devices - you know, different printers and hard drives, or whatever - into the hardware.
HENN: Chris Dixon is at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. His company, along with Google Ventures, just invested more than $10 million in Airware.
DIXON: Yeah, so the - I mean, the big thing in the market right now is that Congress has mandated the FAA come up with guidelines by 2015. And so 2015, we're expecting some, you know, very specific guidelines that kind of balance, you know, privacy and safety and, you know, commercial interests and a bunch of other things. Until then, I think it's a lot of gray area.
HENN: Today, Airware's clients are all abroad. But Nick is here, trying to build a business operating in that gray area.
NICK: You know, if this venture falls apart, or the FAA comes along and tells me I can't be doing this, I have no idea what I'd do. It could turn out very badly.
HENN: Integrating full-scale drones into U.S. airspace - drones the size of the Predator - will take at least two more years. But the FAA says it expects to issue proposed regulations opening up the air to small drones, like Nick's, later this year.
Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.