WASHINGTON (AP) — It's a good bet that in the not-so-distant future aerial drones will be part of Americans' everyday lives, performing countless useful functions.
A far cry from the killing machines whose missiles incinerate terrorists, these generally small, unmanned aircraft will help farmers more precisely apply water and pesticides to crops, saving money and reducing environmental impacts. They'll help police departments find missing people, reconstruct traffic accidents and act as lookouts for SWAT teams. They'll alert authorities to people stranded on rooftops by hurricanes and monitor evacuation flows.
Real estate agents will use them to film videos of properties and surrounding neighborhoods. States will use them to inspect bridges, roads and dams. Oil companies will use them to monitor pipelines, while power companies use them to monitor transmission lines.
With military budgets shrinking, drone makers have been counting on the civilian market to spur the industry's growth. But there's an ironic threat to that hope: Success on the battlefield may contain the seeds of trouble for the more benign uses of drones at home.
The civilian unmanned aircraft industry worries that it will be grounded before it can really take off because of fear among the public that the technology will be misused. Also problematic is a delay in the issuance of government safety regulations that are needed before drones can gain broad access to U.S. skies.
Some companies that make drones or supply support equipment and services say the uncertainty has caused them to put U.S. expansion plans on hold, and they are looking overseas for new markets.
"Our lack of success in educating the public about unmanned aircraft is coming back to bite us," said Robert Fitzgerald, CEO of The BOSH Group of Newport News, Va., which provides support services to drone users.