By James Dean, Florida Today
MELBOURNE, Fla. - From Cape Canaveral, a 66-foot wingspan, remotely piloted U.S. Customs and Border Protection aircraft takes off in search of drug traffickers, illegal immigrants and terrorists from heights of up to 50,000 feet.
On Lake Okeechobee, researchers hurl a custom-built, 9-foot wingspan plane from an airboat to launch an automated, low-altitude flight to monitor invasive plants.
From large to small, the number of such unmanned aircraft systems - popularly called "drones" - is expected to surge as the federal government works to open civilian airspace to them by 2015. Florida officials hope to position the state as a hub for this fast-growing industry by becoming a test site.
"The skies over Florida will look dramatically different in the years to come," Space Florida President Frank DiBello told a gathering of aerospace professionals this month.
The agency's board recently approved spending up to $1.4 million to try to win designation as one of six test ranges across the country that Congress has directed the Federal Aviation Administration to name by the end of the year.
The test sites hope to show that unmanned systems of all shapes and sizes - from wingspans of inches to more than 240 feet - can fly safely alongside piloted aircraft in different terrain and weather conditions.
As drones proliferate, privacy advocates fear unchecked spying by thousands of airborne vehicles.
But supporters argue that once safe protocols are in place, unmanned systems could help analyze brush fires and hurricanes, scout dangerous crime scenes and monitor crops and wildlife - even someday run personal errands.
The FAA forecasts roughly 10,000 commercially operated unmanned aircraft could be active within five years.
Military users now dominate the more than $6 billion industry best known for the large drones that pursue and strike terrorist targets overseas.
At home, the Federal Aviation Administration has granted about 60 public entities permission to perform limited operations outside restricted airspace. Those include Customs and Border Protection, NASA and, in Florida, the Miami-Dade Police Department, sheriff's offices in Orange and Polk counties and the University of Florida.
'Dull, dirty' missions
Unmanned aircraft are ideal for "dull, dirty and dangerous" missions that would put people at risk, said Chuck Johnson of NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in California.
"We fly some of our unmanned aircraft into hurricanes to gather data, and there's a high risk when you do that that the aircraft is not coming back," he said. "It's one thing to lose an airplane and sensors, but it's another to lose a human."
Some unmanned vehicles can fly continuously for much longer than piloted planes or helicopters €" more than 30 hours €" and at lower cost.
Large vehicles with names such as Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk are most recognized by the public, but smaller, less expensive systems are more common.
At the University of Florida, the Unmanned Aerial Systems Research Group has spent 12 years and more than $1 million in grants developing the 11-pound, 9-foot wingspan Nova 2.1, which resembles a hobbyist's radio-controlled plane.
Franklin Percival, a wildlife biologist who heads the group, believes the automated aircraft can produce more accurate statistical measurements of remote habitats and animal populations.
"It probably would fit somewhere between a person on the ground measuring things and a satellite," he said. "There's a hierarchy of sensors, and we can provide a lot of detail that perhaps other sensors cannot."
By FAA permit, the preprogrammed flights can climb no higher than 1,200 feet and must remain within a 1-mile radius of ground observers.
The biggest challenge to integrating unmanned systems into the same airspace as passenger jets and general aviation is development of "sense and avoid" technology - electronic eyes that could spot a potential collision in a pilot's absence.
Also needed are tracking and communications links and regulations for certifying that aircraft designs are safe.
"They are very safe now, but they are not as safe as they would need to be to access the national airspace, particularly flying over busy or inhabited areas where there are a lot of people," said Johnson.
Beyond basic concerns about airworthiness, privacy groups say the platforms offer unprecedented surveillance capabilities that could be abused by law enforcement, criminals or commercial users.
In public comments submitted to the FAA about its test range initiative, the Electronic Privacy Information Center said increased drone use poses "an ongoing threat to every person residing within the United States."
Amie Stepanovich, the center's national security counsel, said the FAA should let the public know how systems are allowed to be used and hold operators accountable if they deviate from those uses.
"We think people need to be aware of what's going on over their head," she said. "We're aware there are very positive benefits to having drones. However, when they're used as surveillance tools, people need to be very aware of what information they can collect."
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group, says privacy concerns are being addressed, including work to set law enforcement guidelines for collection and disposal of data unmanned vehicles collect.
"Ultimately, we have the same concerns about privacy that everyone else has," said Ben Gielow, the association's government relations manager and general counsel. "However, we believe that this new technology offers an incredible potential for the public good."
Dozens of states are competing to win the FAA's designation as a test range, even though the agency is offering no funding to support their operations.
The states hope to capture a piece of an industry projected to nearly double in size over the next decade, to $11.4 billion, according to Teal Group analysts, and a share of the 23,000 jobs that AUVSI estimates integration with the national airspace would create by 2025.
Win or lose, Space Florida intends to make the state a friendly place to fly unmanned aircraft and develop the sensors and payloads that could be turned into valuable businesses.
"We're positioning Florida with a foothold in a new industry," DiBello told his board of directors last month. "This is a thing that's good for the evolution of the aerospace industry in the state and we need to take that action and move on it."