WASHINGTON - Civilian cousins of the military drones that have tracked and killed terrorists abroad are in demand by United States police departments, border patrols, power companies, news organizations, and others wanting a bird’s-eye view that is too impractical or dangerous for conventional planes or helicopters to get.
Along with the enthusiasm for the unmanned aircraft, though, there are qualms. Drones overhead could invade people’s privacy. The government worries they could collide with passenger planes or crash, concerns that have slowed more widespread adoption of the technology.
Despite that, pressure is building to give drones the same access as manned aircraft to the sky at home.
“It’s going to be the next big revolution in aviation. It’s coming,’’ said Dan Elwell, the Aerospace Industries Association’s vice president for civil aviation.
Some impetus comes from the military, which will bring home drones from Afghanistan and wants room to test and use them. In December, Congress gave the Federal Aviation Administration six months to pick half a dozen sites around the country where the military and others can fly unmanned aircraft in the vicinity of regular air traffic, with the aim of demonstrating they are safe.
The Defense Department says the demand for drones and their expanding missions requires routine and unfettered access to domestic airspace, including around airports and cities.
In a report last October, the Pentagon called for flights first by small drones both solo and in groups, day and night, expanding over several years. Flights by large and medium-sized drones would follow in the latter half of this decade.
Other government agencies want to fly drones, too, but they have been hobbled by an FAA ban unless they first receive case-by-case permission. Fewer than 300 waivers were in use at the end of 2011, and they often include restrictions that severely limit the usefulness of the flights. Businesses that want to put drones to work are out of luck; waivers are only for government agencies.
But that is changing. Congress has told the FAA that the agency must allow civilian and military drones to fly in civilian airspace by September 2015. This spring, the FAA is set to take a first step by proposing rules that would allow limited commercial use of small drones for the first time.
The possibility of armed police drones someday patrolling the sky disturbs Terri Burke, executive director of the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The Constitution is taking a back seat so that boys can play with their toys,’’ Burke said. “It’s kind of scary that they can use a laptop computer to zap people from the air.’’
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which focuses on threats to civil liberties involving new technologies, sued the FAA recently, seeking disclosure of which agencies have been given permission to use drones.
Industry officials said privacy concerns are overblown.
“Today anybody - the paparazzi, anybody - can hire a helicopter or a [small plane] to circle around something that they’re interested in and shoot away with high-powered cameras all they want,’’ said Elwell, the aerospace industry spokesman.
Until recently, FAA officials were saying there were too many unresolved safety issues to give drones greater access. Even now the agency is cautious about describing its plans and avoids discussion of deadlines.
“The thing we care about is doing that in an orderly and safe way and finding the appropriate . . . balance of all the users in the system,’’ Michael Huerta, FAA’s acting administrator, told a recent industry luncheon in Washington.
Drones come in all sizes, from the high-flying Global Hawk with its 116-foot wingspan to a hummingbird-like drone that can perch on a window ledge to record sound and video.
The aerospace industry forecasts a worldwide deployment of almost 30,000 drones by 2018, with the United States accounting for half of them.
The hungriest market is the nation’s 19,000 law enforcement agencies. Customs and Border Protection has nine Predator drones mostly in use on the border with Mexico, and plans to expand to 24 by 2016. Officials say the aircraft have helped in the seizure of more than 20 tons of illegal drugs and the arrest of 7,500 people since border patrols began six years ago.
Power companies, farmers, and ranchers also have an interest in using drones.