Drone aircraft, best known for their role in hunting and destroying terrorist hideouts in Afghanistan, may soon be coming to the skies near you.
Police agencies want drones for air support to spot runaway criminals. Utility companies believe they can help monitor oil, gas and water pipelines. Farmers think drones could aid in spraying their crops with pesticides.
"It's going to happen," said Dan Elwell, vice president of civil aviation at the Aerospace Industries Association. "Now it's about figuring out how to safely assimilate the technology into national airspace."
That's the job of the Federal Aviation Administration, which plans to propose new rules for the use of small drones in January, a first step toward integrating robotic aircraft into the nation's skyways.
The agency has issued 266 active testing permits for civilian drone applications but hasn't permitted drones in national airspace on a wide scale out of concern that the pilotless craft don't have an adequate "detect, sense and avoid" technology to prevent midair collisions.
Other concerns include privacy -- imagine a camera-equipped drone buzzing above your backyard pool party -- and the creative ways in which criminals and terrorists might use the machines...