For about the cost of a squad car, a deputy sheriff in Mesa County, Colorado, can track criminal suspects, picture an arson scene or search for lost hikers, all with the ease of tossing a toy glider into the air.
The sprawling county on the Utah line uses two remote- controlled drone aircraft, similar to those deployed against Afghanistan’s Taliban, to cover 3,300 square miles (8,600 square kilometers) of mountainous terrain. Remotely operated technology honed in the war on terror is letting Mesa County and state and local governments across the U.S. work faster and cheaper.
“We save a significant amount of time,” said Ben Miller, 34, who oversees the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office’s two drones from Grand Junction. “It provides a huge resource savings.”
About 20 state and local governments and 24 universities around the nation are authorized to fly remotely piloted drones, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Those figures are expected to rise in coming years as the agency develops rules and standards to safely integrate them into airspace shared with planes, according to industry and FAA officials.
From search and rescue to monitoring water supplies, roads, bridges and forest fires, applications run the gamut, Ben Gielow, general counsel at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Arlington, Virginia, said by telephone.
“They’re going to be used very aggressively in the future,” said Mary Scott Nabers, president and chief executive officer of Strategic Partnerships Inc., an Austin, Texas, industry consultant. “The federal government has allocated billions for these, and state and local governments will follow.”
Annual spending on unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, worldwide will almost double during the next decade to $11.4 billion, according to an April report by the Teal Group Corp., a defense-industry consulting firm based in Fairfax, Virginia. It didn’t estimate how much of that will come from non-military buyers. Some drones are as small as radio-controlled model airplanes and cost less than those used in warfare.
“Use in the U.S. will clearly be a growth area,” Philip Finnegan, Teal Group’s director of corporate analysis and an author of the report, said by telephone. “Governments that in the past couldn’t afford helicopters can now afford UAVs.”
Low-cost tools that make it easier for governments to monitor their territory by air have raised privacy questions, said Amie Stepanovich, national security counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit group in Washington that monitors technology and civil liberties.
“Governments have been using aircraft for a long time, but if it’s cheaper and easier, it becomes more invasive,” Stepanovich said by telephone. “There are obvious benefits to drones, but if you buy a drone to monitor fires and then start using it to monitor individuals, we think there needs to be protection.”