Sunday, July 01, 2012
The drones are coming.

In fact, Kansas State University sees something of a drone nation beyond the horizon.

Which is why, a few years ago, the college launched a bachelor’s degree program in operating airborne robots. Some call them UAS, or unmanned aircraft systems. Others prefer the term UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles.

To you, they’re drones — just not the ones that launch weapons.

Large swaths of the civilian world, from first responders to ranchers, real estate agents, park rangers and even some golf-course superintendents, are pining for the remote cameras and potential cost-savings of a well-guided drone compared to manned flight.

The most famous of the military drones, the Predator, has proved in Pakistan and Afghanistan its skills at gathering intelligence and firing missiles at suspected terrorists — at no risk to the pilot looking at a video screen on the ground.

Here at home, less-muscled drones are now regularly deployed by dozens of public agencies to scan crime scenes, search for people lost in the woods and snoop on drug deals.

Drones inspect crop damage. Chart drought patterns. Monitor hurricanes. Catch illegal immigrants crossing the border.

At K-State’s UAS lab in Salina, a 25-pound, battery-powered helicopter resting on a countertop recently was sent aloft by researchers on a mission to track the migration of prairie chickens.

Commercial interests have lobbied Congress hard to receive Federal Aviation Administration certification to fly their own drones in U.S. airspace. Some real estate outfits have already hired operators to guide camera-carrying drones over luxury properties, creating high-definition, bird’s-eye video that can wow potential buyers.

Earlier this year, police warned the real estate community in Los Angeles that home-droning for moneymaking purposes was against federal law.

But that may not be true by the fall of 2015, when the FAA faces a deadline set by lawmakers to safely integrate high-flying drones, including the commercial type, with manned aircraft.

So drone fever is spreading, and quickly — too quickly for privacy advocates. They worry that the rush to put more cameras in the sky will encourage eavesdropping on law-abiding Americans...