In the air, droning overhead, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) is increasing. Hobbyists, photographers and even news organizations have deployed the remote-controlled flying machines. Amazon has joked about using drones for doorstep delivery.
The fleet overhead has raised questions about technology, privacy and air space safety. So far, many of those are unresolved while the Federal Aviation Administration works out rules for the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. The only current clarity comes in a federal ban on the use of UAVs for commercial gain, but there are legal challenges to even that limit.
In 2013, North Carolina lawmakers passed a two-year moratorium on the use of drones by state or local governments. The budget signed by Gov. Pat McCrory last week set limits for drone use, but any state laws will eventually have to comply with FAA regulations.
At North Carolina State University, members of the Aerial Robotics Club design, build and navigate unmanned aerial vehicles without knowing how they’ll eventually use the skills they are practicing.
“It’s been a massive learning experience,” said student RJ Gritter. “UAVs have blown up in the market.”
Gritter’s team recently claimed first place in an international competition with a drone that can pinpoint targets for search missions and drop rescue supplies.
Kyle Snyder, of the NextGen Air Transportation Center at NC State, is working on ways to integrate drones into an efficient and updated national transportation network.
“There’s a lot of newness to it,” he said. “We’re still trying to figure out how best to manage it, what are the real capabilities and who should have access, who can’t have access.”
That access will be key as drones become more common.
“In the image processing, in the manufacture, in the components, all of this has become more and more inexpensive,” said Dr. Larry Silverberg, associate head of NC State’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department.
Privacy advocates worry that drones mean more surveillance of more people in more places, even on private property.
The FAA has the challenge of balancing legal constraints, public and air safety with economic opportunity. Their recommendations are expected by the end of the year.