By Rachel Janik and Mitchell Armentrout
WASHINGTON — The next time you feel the urge for fresh Mexican food, just look up. A taco-toting drone may be circling in the sky.
Researchers at the Darwin Aerospace laboratory in San Francisco have designed the Burrito Bomber, the world’s first airborne Mexican food delivery system, which would allow customers to have food parachuted right to their doorstep.
As fun as they may be to think about, such ideas aren’t likely to be realized anytime soon. The Federal Aviation Administration likely won’t decide until 2015 on the regulations to integrate burrito-bearing drones into urban airspace.
But the potential of a booming domestic drone industry for commercial purposes has entrepreneurs seeing dollar signs. A far stretch from the military strikes that most people typically associate with drones, developers have begun hatching a litany of ideas for unmanned aerial systems in the commercial sphere, controlled by civilians in American skies.
From conservation efforts and crop monitoring to Hollywood film-making and, of course, food delivery, experts anticipate the value of the commercial drone industry, already worth almost $14 billion per year, to skyrocket to more than $82 billion by 2025, according to Mario Mairena, government relations manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which lobbies on behalf of the drone industry.
“And that’s a conservative estimate,” Mairena said. “We’re excited about where the industry is at right now.”
Although opponents decry the Big Brother-like intrusion of thousands of remote cameras roaming the sky, Mairena said the industry could create as many as 70,000 jobs in the first three years after the Federal Aviation Administration releases guidelines to integrate unmanned systems into national airspace, scheduled for 2015. A recent Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International report claims that for every year commercial drone integration into the national airspace is delayed, more than $10 billion in economic potential is lost.
Chris Anderson, co-founder of drone manufacturer 3D Robotics, said he expects the commercial drone market to boom once it gets clearance to enter the skies.
“Maybe the most exciting thing is that we don’t yet know all the ways this technology is going to mature,” he said.
One of the most promising areas for growth in unmanned systems could be in agriculture, according to Anderson.
“It’s really reshaping the way we think about farming, among other things,” Anderson said. Using camera-equipped drones to monitor crops could save money, he said, with $300 UAVs to check for disease and irrigation levels replacing $1,000-per-hour manned aircraft flyovers.
“It makes American farmers that much more competitive,” he said.
Hollywood is also in on the push for commercial drone licensing. Howard Gantman, spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America, said the film industry has been lobbying for years for the right to use unmanned aircraft for aerial filming.
“It’s safer than putting a camera operator up in a tall tree; it’s cheaper than renting a helicopter for a day,” Gantman said.
Opening scenes from the most recent James Bond film, “Skyfall,” were shot from drones, as were some scenes from “The Smurfs 2.” Because those movies were filmed in Europe, producers were able to opt for a roughly $200 drone rather than hire a helicopter filming crew for more than $2,000 per hour.
“Flight crews can eat up huge portions of movie budgets,” Gantman said.
One of the more well-known uses of drones is by police departments. Steve Gitlin, spokesman for drone manufacturer AeroVironment, said law enforcement appreciates the more budget-friendly surveillance capability as an alternative to helicopters. Drones also have been used for search and rescue missions and deployed to locate survivors in natural disasters.
“These systems can take care of the jobs that put people in harm’s way,” Gitlin said.
A promising new frontier for drone surveillance could save countless endangered species, as non-profits such as the World Wildlife Fund embrace drones to monitor wildlife populations and track poachers.
Early in 2012, WWF began research into how small drones like the GPS-enabled Raptor could help nations like Nepal stop the illegal wildlife trade. The low-cost technology has been critical in developing countries with gravely at-risk animals like the Asian elephant, white rhino and tiger. For poor countries, the ability to aerially monitor national parks and protected lands is now possible with the advent of these more affordable, model-airplane-sized drones.
Matt Waite, professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said when he saw a drone for the first time at a digital mapping conference in 2001, he was instantly inspired.
“I thought about all the natural disasters I had covered as a reporter and I thought, ‘This is it,’” he said.
Despite his enthusiasm for the new technology, using drones for commercial newsgathering remains illegal in the United States. Still, Waite was interested in pursuing drones’ potential in the industry, and he set up a drone journalism lab at the University of Nebraska to allow students to experiment with drones.
Anxiety over potential privacy abuses surfaced when a false rumor surfaced that celebrity gossip site TMZ was applying for a drone of its own, presumably to get stealthy paparazzi shots of unsuspecting stars. Waite said he believes this fear of misuse reflects more of the public’s distrust of the media as a whole, not the practical application of the technology for things such as traffic reports.
“Using drones in journalism does not have to include stalking Lindsay Lohan,” he said. “Responsible journalists should be aware of the rules.”
For civil liberties groups, unchecked use of drones poses serious privacy concerns. But many private-sector uses have mostly positive potential, said Amie Stepanovich, director of the domestic surveillance project of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a research group in Washington.
Newsgathering in public spaces and such uses as food delivery all represent a social good as long as video footage is recorded legally and all “incidental collection” of video – footage picked up by a drone conducting a job separate from its recordings capability – is disposed of promptly, she said.
Such questions have been left to the FAA, an organization that has never dealt with privacy issues until now. The drone industry awaits comprehensive guidelines, expected to be released in 2015.
“We all just want rules for the road,” said the University of Nebraska’s Waite. “Once we have those, we can operate.”