When it first aired in 1962, The Jetsons seemed unbelievable. The premise was too farfetched and no one really believed that at some point in time, everyday life would include so many robotic contraptions.  Yet, fifty years later, computers, the Internet, and automation dominate our lives.  While we still do not have the perfect robotic help mate like Rosie, we do have the iRobot vacuum cleaner, and we are on the brink of a Jetsons-like transportation system.  Unmanned aircraft, or drones, are taking to the skies and it is predicted that they will crowd our air highways within just a few years.

Drones, drones, and more drones – when, how and who can use drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) – is the current topic in the aviation community.  Drones are familiar to most Americans, but they are typically associated with military and special operation applications.  In fact, the Pentagon relies on a family of more than 10,000 drones, and its “Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap” establishes a future of even greater drone use in the next quarter of the century.

As reported in the PBS documentary, “Rise of the Drones,” “these aerial robots are replacing manned planes; they’re revolutionizing warfare by allowing us to see and kill from half a world away, and they’re making science fiction a reality.”  But drones are not just about warfare anymore; drones are becoming more prevalent for other missions as well, including law enforcement and search and rescueAmazon has the lofty goal of using drones to deliver its packages in just a couple of years, and pizza delivery will have a new meaning if Domino’s Pizza’s aspirations come true.

UAS commercial operations, as contemplated by Amazon and Domino’s, however, are not yet allowed in the U.S.  Operators of model aircraft can freely fly UAS for recreational purposes, but anyone else has to obtain a Certificate of Authorization (for public aircraft) or an Special Airworthiness Certificate-Experimental Category (for civil aircraft engaged in research and development, market survey or crew training).  Presently, the FAA has authorized over 106 federal, state and local entities to fly UAS for public safety and research missions.  Local law enforcement agencies are drone proponents because it allows them to conduct police work by air at a more affordable cost than helicopters.

The FAA, however, is under a statutory mandate to provide a pathway for the more ubiquitous use of drones, particularly in the commercial context, and in the last year, the FAA has made significant strides towards that goal.  In July 2013, pursuant to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the FAA issued its first aircraft type certificates to the Boeing’s Insitu Scan Eagle X2000 and AeroVironment’s PUMA to operate in the Arctic in order to test commercial UAS operations.  Then, on November 10, 2013, the FAA released a roadmap outlining an implementation plan for UAS civil and commercial applications including cargo transport, critical infrastructure monitoring, disaster response, and aerial mapping and chartering.

Most recently, on December 30, 2013, the FAA announced the selection of six test sites for UAS operations.  The six sites were chosen based on a number of factors, including geography, climate, airspace use, safety, aviation and risk.  The FAA’s objective is to test UAS operations under a diverse set of conditions so that information can be gathered on how to eventually integrate UAS into the national airspace (NAS).  In early 2014, the FAA is expected to propose a rule that would allow small UAS (less than 55 pounds) to operate in the NAS.  By statute, the FAA is required to promulgate the final rule by no later than September 30, 2015.

UAS issues are complex and impact more than just air traffic—there also are privacy, security, technology, communications and environmental implications—so the FAA’s rulemaking will be controversial.  Indeed, the an anti-drone movement is gaining momentum as many individuals and  state and local governments have expressed concerns that privacy and civil liberties are compromised with the use of domestic drones for surveillance.  In fact, nine states have enacted laws restricting the use of drones, and localities, such as Charlottesville, VA, have passed resolutions urging their states to take a hard look at the use of drones.

The privacy and moral questions raised by drone operations are overshadowing the value and advantages of drones.  Consider that with the use of drones, victims of accidents and natural and manmade disasters may be searched out more quickly; critical infrastructure, such as bridges, pipelines, and railroad corridors, can be inspected and monitored more frequently and thoroughly; military personnel in combat aircraft can be relieved of duty; and drones are less costly to fuel and operate than military aircraft.  It is for these reasons, and many more, that it is inevitable that drones will become a greater part of our lives.  The question is only when.