Civilian drones are coming. By 2015, the FAA is required by congressional mandate to create rules that will integrate drones into U.S. airspace -- and it’s estimated that by 2020, about 30,000 drones will be in operation.

A recent study released by the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), however, warns that for drones to be accepted by the public, further research must be conducted to ensure that concerns about drone privacy and safety are taken into consideration.

The study identified several key areas where drone technology can be used to accomplish difficult or dangerous tasks: Drones are used in agriculture and wildlife, earth science research, border surveillance, search and rescue missions, monitoring spills, and commercial applications such as inspecting utilities or bridges.

Additionally, fire fighters, police officers and rescue workers nationwide are looking to drones as tools that can help save lives.

Drone Certificates of Authorization

While civilian use of drones does not require any type of legal authorization, government use requires a certificate of authorization (COA), 413 of which have been issued to federal, local and state governments.

The National Center for Policy Analysis study showed that 41 percent of COAs for drone use were issued to universities conducting research, about 33 percent were issued to military agencies, about 16 percent were issued to nonmilitary federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 7 percent were issued to domestic law enforcement agencies, and 2 percent were issued for civil use like fighting forest fires and topographic mapping.

The study also illustrated the potential for local job growth, particularly in Texas and the Northwest, where many aviation companies are located. With annual spending on drones expected to grow from $5.9 billion in 2012 to $11.3 billion in 2021, according to aerospace market intelligence firm the Teal Group, an increase in jobs is likely to follow.

Though there is a clear upside to drones, the study notes that there are concens that remain to be mitigated. To enter widespread use, drones should be equipped with “see-and-avoid” technology that would allow them to avoid other aircraft, according to the study, which also recommended the development of secure data and video links to prevent data interception, as well as secure or encrypted GPS signals to prevent the possibility of a hacker spoofing a signal and taking control of a drone.

The study also pointed out the need for redundancy to be built into drone platforms to account for mechanical and technical failures, as well as “lost-link” protocols that adequately handle events in which a drone loses connection with its host operator.

There is also potential for abuse, according to the study, which pointed out that drones have killed thousands of people in war zones, and that they may have been used domestically to track people, most notably in the search for rogue ex-police officer Christopher Dorner.

The Fourth Amendment must also be taken into consideration, as they're of primary concern for much of the public, according to the study. “Therefore, strict privacy protections must be implemented before the public will support drone use in domestic airspace,” the study states. “No court has yet addressed Fourth Amendment considerations with respect to drones, but existing jurisprudence provides guidance for future rulings.”

The study cited California v. Ciraolo (1986), a California appeals court case that found an individual’s private property is not protected by the Fourth Amendment while an aircraft is in navigable airspace. Another case, Dow Chemical Co. v. United States (1986), had the Supreme Court rule that photography by government agencies using commerically available equipment does not require a warrant. And a third precedent was set by the Supreme Court in Dow, in Kyllo v. United States (2001), which held that warrantless surveillance is permissible through equipment such as thermal imaging.

Photo of the Aeryon Scout Micro-UAV courtesy of Aeryon