Commercial and civilian drones are already here — even if they’re not supposed to be. Officially, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) forbids commercial operation of unmanned aircraft in U.S. national air space, but that hasn’t stopped a growing number of them from taking to the skies.

In January, the Los Angeles Police Department had to warn real estate agents not to use images of properties taken from a remotely controlled aircraft.

During the Occupy movement in New York City last November, reporter Tim Pool obtained a bird’s-eye view of police action in Zuccotti Park from a customized two-foot-wide drone flying overhead. The camera-equipped device streamed live video to the journalist’s smartphone, which relayed the footage to a public Internet stream.

And since 2011, News Corp.’s The Daily has had a news-gathering drone that it reportedly used to capture aerial footage of post-storm Alabama and flooding in South Dakota.

Unmanned aircrafts are trickling into use now, but the floodgates will open in 2015: That’s when the FAA will officially  allow operation of commercial drones in U.S. air space. The agency predicts that 15,000 flying robots will be winging their way through the nation’s skies by 2020, and that number will double by 2030.

Once that swarm of pilotless aircraft is set loose, it’ll be up to state and local officials to sort out most of the rules for using these devices safely, securely and without trampling on privacy rights.

“Some kind of consistent policy would be a nice thing to have, but there isn’t an agency or arm of the [federal] government that’s in a position to enforce any privacy regulations,” said Matt Waite, a journalism professor at University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). “These kinds of laws generallytend to be delegated to the states.”

Within the year, the FAA must allow any “government public safety agency” to operate an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) weighing 25 pounds or less as long as certain conditions, such as daytime use, are met. Currently, few of the thousands of law enforcement agencies in the United States have access to air support, said Don Shinnamon, a public safety aviation consultant. “This technology has the potential to bring air support to many public safety agencies,” he said. “It means a higher level of public safety.”

Drone Commotion

In June, rumors spread about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) using drones to spy on cattle farmers in Nebraska and Iowa. “The problem is, the EPA doesn’t have any drones,” said Matt Waite, professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “They were doing it the same way they were always doing it, which is two dudes in a Cessna.”

The EPA uses manned aircraft to monitor for clean-water violations, such as dirty runoff or manure dumped into a stream. But drone use may not be all that far-fetched, Waite said. “The EPA’s enforcement division is too small for the job that they have to do — single enforcement officers being charged with impossibly large areas to cover — and they can’t just randomly check in on different problems or projects because they’re overworked,” he said. “UAVs might open that up a bit.”

Montgomery County, Texas, is about to test that theory. The county, located north of Houston, unveiled its three-foot, 55-pound UAV in October.

“We have our share of crime,” said Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel of the Sheriff’s Office. “We have no airplanes and no helicopters, because of the expense involved. We’ve always had to defer to [other agencies] to hopefully help us in those situations where we needed an aircraft. Oftentimes, they’re out doing their own work.”

Purchased with the help of a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the county’s $260,000 UAV has yet to be deployed on a mission. But McDaniel has big plans for the device, which looks like a miniature helicopter. The UAV could give a rescue squad an aerial view of a hostage situation, he said, or in the case of an unknown chemical spill, it could read the placard on the container without sending a person into harm’s way. “We bought this for specific reasons,” McDaniel said. “It is for critical incidents where an air asset would be an appropriate way of providing information that we wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the nonprofit Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems, predicts that drones will begin to assume some of the more “dangerous, difficult and dull” missions performed by government agencies. For instance, when law enforcement officials are forced to call off a search because of unfavorable weather conditions, a UAV could continue surveillance through the storm. Or when officials need a nonintrusive way to count wildlife or inspectors want to check a damaged roof, a UAV is the ideal candidate. “With better situational awareness, you make better decisions,” Toscano said. “You’re more effective and efficient, and you’re safer.”

UAVs can give public safety officials a leg up in just about any situation, added Shinnamon, a certified firefighter and former police chief. To minimize some of the risks firefighters face when they climb onto the roof of a burning building, he said, a UAV could be deployed to seek out hot spots where the structure is most likely compromised. If a toddler wanders off or an Alzheimer’s patient goes missing, Shinnamon said, a UAV could provide a bird’s-eye view of the scene, helping to expedite the search.

“The view you get from an aerial perspective is so much better than you get standing on a street corner,” he said. “If that’s your kid who’s missing or your relative who’s an Alzheimer’s patient, you want the police to use anything available to help find them.”

But the emergence of unmanned aircraft technology also is stirring up worries over safety and privacy, particularly as this equipment makes it into the hands of commercial organizations.

For instance, UAVs flown by minimally trained operators could pose a hazard, said Mary (Missy) Cummings, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. To address some of these concerns, the FAA will propose a rule on small unmanned aircraft systems this year, working with industry to establish approval criteria, according to a spokesperson. In addition, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems recently released a code of conduct that includes recommendations for safe, nonintrusive operation.

As for privacy, civil liberties advocates have expressed concerns about the potential for UAV use to violate citizens’ rights. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union published a report providing recommendations for government use of drone aircraft.

“We need a system of rules to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this technology without bringing us a large step closer to a ‘surveillance society’ in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the authorities,” wrote authors Jay Stanley and Catherine Crump. “The prospect of cheap, small, portable flying video surveillance machines threatens to eradicate existing practical limits on aerial monitoring and allow for pervasive surveillance, police fishing expeditions, and abusive use of these tools in a way that could eventually eliminate the privacy Americans have traditionally enjoyed in their movements and activities.”

Proponents and observers of the technology agree that the impact of drones will be sweeping — but they contend that their uses will be much more mundane than sinister.

“People will see them [drones] more, but it won’t be this kind of dystopian, ‘the skies are filled with robots spying on people all the time’ kind of thing,” said Waite, who recently launched a Journalism Drone Lab at UNL. “What I think will happen in 10 years is that all manner of industries will be transformed — but in utterly banal ways.”

For instance, air freight companies may automate the flying of packages from one city to another or farmers may use drones to monitor irrigation systems. “If one of the spigots on one of those center pivot irrigation systems — which are enormous, they’re hundreds and hundreds of feet long — goes bad, a little swath of your crops out in the middle of your field that you can’t see suddenly isn’t getting watered and will die,” he said. A UAV could monitor the spigots to make sure they’re working, and alert someone when they’re not.

Golf course operators are another potential customer. For instance, UNL’s PGA Golf Management Program is interested in using UAVs to monitor moisture distribution on fairways, according to Waite. “A little drone could fly over and be taking pictures of the ground — and maybe they’re multi-spectral images, so you can get an idea of how much soil moisture is in the ground and the plants themselves,” he said. “By knowing this, they would know that we only need to water this part of the fifth fairway; we don’t need to water the whole thing.”

This would save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of gallons of water regularly. “UAVs could make golf courses significantly more sustainable,” he said.

Before civilian UAVs can fully live up to their potential, however, drone manufacturers need to solve a few problems.

Often powered by batteries or fuel cells, small UAVs might only be able to operate for 30 minutes to an hour at a time, said Toscano. Even as UAVs become smaller, safer and more reliable, extending operating time continues to be a challenge. “You want to be able to have these systems operate for long periods of time,” he said.

Another technological hurdle is ensuring the security of UAVs. It’s important that law enforcement agencies protect their systems from criminals who would jam a signal or interrupt a mission, Toscano said.

And that very real threat is one that Todd Humphreys, who teaches aeronautical engineering at the University of Texas, has begun to address.

In late June, Humphreys and his students used a technique called spoofing to hack into a drone and take control of it. The test on the civilian, university-owned drone was done at the campus football field. “We did an attack there just as a dress rehearsal for the next week when we were invited by the Department of Homeland Security down to White Sands [N.M.] to carry out the attack under their noses,” Humphreys told American Public Media.

Just a week later, he and his students completed the demonstration for the DHS, repeatedly overtaking navigational signals going to the GPS-guided vehicle from about a kilometer away, according to the University of Texas. Next year, they plan to perform a similar demonstration on a moving UAV from 10 km away.

“We’re going to have civilian drones in our air space, and of course, they’re concerned about the security of that premise, so [the DHS] would like to look into any kind of vulnerabilities,” Humphreys told American Public Media. “This is definitely a vulnerability, so they’d like to patch this before 2015 comes around.”

To prepare for the 2015 deadline, Congress directed the FAA to designate six test sites that will provide data on how to safely integrate drones into the same air space as manned airplanes. The first test site — New Mexico State University — became operational in June 2011.

The sites will help the FAA sort out certification standards and air traffic requirements for unmanned flight operations. They’ll also help the agency coordinate the introduction of drones and the development of the Next Generation Air Transportation System, a massive overhaul of the nation’s air traffic control system.

Meanwhile, the public safety community is addressing some of the policy issues triggered by the new technology. In partnership with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Shinnamon is developing a model UAV policy that could be adopted by law enforcement agencies worldwide.

While he’s in agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union’s recommendations for UAV policies, which include usage restrictions and public notice, Shinnamon also recommends other safeguards. Law enforcement agencies should engage their communities, including civil liberties advocates, in UAV discussions, he said, and allow citizens to review and comment on UAV procedures. A search warrant should be issued if a UAV is targeting a specific location to gather criminal evidence, Shinnamon said, and all flights should be approved by a supervisor. Before the deployment of a UAV, he said, an emergency notification system should alert citizens that the aircraft will be overhead. “It’s new technology,” Shinnamon said. “There’s a whole education process that goes along with that.”

Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office currently is drafting a policy manual for its UAV. One rule that’s already in effect: The UAV can only be approved for launch by either the sheriff or chief deputy.

Although the county’s UAV has yet to fly, McDaniel is already considering possibilities for the future. While the department doesn’t anticipate using a UAV with a weapons platform, he said, a device with tear gas or nonlethal rubber bullet capabilities is a possibility. McDaniel said he’d like to see UAV technology in the toolkits of more law enforcement agencies. “I’m hoping that public safety agencies throughout the United States will move forward in attempting to gain this type of technology,” he said.

On the whole, the concerns will continue as UAV use grows and changes, Shinnamon said. “As I’ve watched this technology evolve by leaps and bounds over the last few years, there are lots of issues society is going to have to come together to address.”

Associate Editor Jessica Mulholland contributed to this story.

Christina Hernandez Sherwood  |  Contributing Writer

Christina Hernandez Sherwood is a writer in New Jersey.