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Drones already here


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Published on: Thursday, May 23, 2013

By Lucas High

ANNAPOLIS - “Autonomous flight!” Christopher Vo shouted, smiling as he looked skyward at a spider-like helicopter about the size of a large pizza box hovering 50 feet above his head.

 The drone -- built by Vo with parts purchased online -- sped off nearly silently toward a preprogrammed waypoint without Vo so much as touching the joystick on the controller in his hand.

Computer, camera and aviation technologies have become smaller and more affordable, making it possible for everyday people like Vo to purchase, build and operate drones for fun. And while current regulations forbid commercial drone flights, private companies are lobbying to change that so they can enter what they think will be a lucrative market for drones that can be used to map terrain or even help real estate agents develop virtual tours.

 “We just want to fly and have some fun,” said Vo, who was joined at a recent “fly-in” in Leesburg, Va., by several dozen other drones enthusiasts.

But critics point to drones’ potential dark side, warning they could be used to invade citizens’ privacy, fire a gun or even take down a plane. That leaves the Federal Aviation Administration struggling to strike a balance between promoting innovation and maintaining privacy and safety.

 Current law allows for drone use by various law enforcement agencies, including Customs and Border Protection, the Drug Enforcement Administration and many local police departments. Civilians are permitted by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones in unrestricted airspace as long as the drones fly no higher than 400 feet.

Technically speaking, any craft capable of pilotless flight can be considered an unmanned aerial vehicle, including remote control planes, blimps and toy helicopters.

But modern unmanned aerial vehicles, the formal name for drones (other names include unmanned aircraft, unmanned aerial system, remotely piloted vehicle and remotely operated aircraft), aren’t your grandfather’s model planes. Nor are they deadly, military-grade Predators that fly over the skies of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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