Drones increasingly have commercial, as well as military, applications.
Drones increasingly have commercial, as well as military, applications.
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fisl quinze/Flickr

Drones have been fixtures in headlines recently — and not just the military kind, but increasingly the kind that might one day deliver packages to our doorstep. 

In a world where we're used to getting anything we want — from a car to a hotel room to a date — with a swipe of our fingertips, the FAA is taking some heat for the glacial pace at which they're moving in regulating the civilian versions. The drone industry is standing by, antsy to get their models into the sky. 

The FAA's side of the story? In contrast to say, finding a room to crash in or a car to get you where you're going, drones can fall out of the sky. 

“Remotely piloted planes crash a lot more often,” says Ryan Delaney, a reporter for WRVO in Syracuse and part of the Innovation Trail project. “There was an Air Force drone that crashed here in upstate New York last winter because part of its navigation system couldn’t operate properly in the cold weather.” 

The FAA has allowed some government agencies and universities to use drones. And there are definitely hobbyists out there flying iPhone-controlled drones in their backyards. Even Martha Stewart is a fan. But when thousands of those end up in the air at once, it could create major problems. 

Six locations have finally been cleared for testing takeoff: Located in Alaska, Nevada, Texas, North Dakota, Virginia and upstate New York, the diverse, FAA-approved sites mean companies will be able to test their drones in all kinds of conditions — wind, cold, heat, water — in rural areas with relatively few people around.

There are, of course, much more benign potential uses that companies want to try out. Some of the early testing right now, says Delaney, is around agricultural needs. Soon, companies could be testing their drones over New York state farms to see how crops are doing, or what the pest and weed situation is.

Later down the line, uses could include fighting forest fires, search and resuce in remote areas or law enforcement. The mandate from the FAA is to figure out how these aircraft, lacking pilots, will interact with air traffic controllers as well as other aircraft, of the more traditional piloted variety. 

People in regions like upstate New York have some concerns about the testing, says Delaney: mainly privacy and safety. Some people are freaked out by the thought of cameras in said drones — with nightmares of neighbors spying on neighbors or warrantless surveillance by police departments dancing in their heads. 

There's some tension, adds Delaney, when it comes to drone use in these more remote parts of the country. Rural areas could be some of the biggest beneficiaries of drone use — in agriculture, in firefighting, in search and rescue. But many people in these areas are also less trusting and more suspicious of the downsides of drone use, as opposed to people living in big cities, used to being surrounded by police cameras and license plate readers.

Still, there are also many who feel hopeful that having such test sites near by could help more rural areas like upstate New York become mini-Silicon Valleys, hubs of innovation. The states who have managed to lock down testing sites are hoping to get a big piece of the drone industry pie. 

This interview first aired on PRI's Innovation Hub, a new public radio show that challenges conventional wisdom and showcases creativity.

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