Drones Could Soon Be a Common Sight In the Skies

FAA expects unmanned aircraft to be “fully integrated” in public airspace inside of five years.

By Brad Harper
The Montgomery Advertiser

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Unmanned drones may be a common sight in the skies over Alabama within the next few years, doing everything from scouting traffic accidents to delivering packages.

“I think in the next five years you’ll see these aircraft fully integrated in the airspace,” said John McGraw, a former Federal Aviation Administration official. “I think they’ll have the ability to sense and avoid other [air] traffic. … I think you’ll see that they’re part of everyday life.”

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Some agencies already use unmanned aircraft here.

Homeland Security Deputy Director Shirrell Roberts said Northport firefighters and Mobile police have put them to use. But he said other Alabama first responders have drones and are afraid to use them until they have clear policies and procedures in place.

“There’s a great hesitancy,” Roberts said.

The FAA is expected to propose new rules soon. Meanwhile, a task force of state leaders is trying to prepare for that new future by looking at ways to use drones.

Groups representing agriculture, education, law enforcement and more told the task force that they see a wealth of opportunities. They said drones could be used to help out on the farm, to monitor power lines, to map land and in many other ways.

McGraw said the flying vehicles could examine the underside of bridges or dangerous areas of plants far more quickly and safely than a person could. They could fly package deliveries to remote areas. And there are more potential uses arriving every day as the technology improves.

The task force’s goal is to get FAA approval to expand the use of drones in Alabama and establish guidelines for their use. Their recommendations are due to the governor by Jan. 15.

McGraw is an Auburn graduate and said he sees a lot of potential for the use of unmanned planes here.

“Alabama is interested, is asking the right questions and certainly has a strong history in the aerospace/aviation industry,” he said.

Officials also said they’ve run into some privacy concerns.

The idea of having cameras hovering overhead may upset some people, McGraw acknowledged. But he said it’s not much of a change in a world that’s already full of monitoring devices on the ground.

“(People) need to realize that there are two cameras on every cell phone,” he said. “There are security cameras inside and outside of almost every building we’re in every day. … You’re probably on camera most of the time.

“They really need to look at the bigger picture and realize that the cameras on an unmanned aircraft don’t change the situation that much, and that there are laws in place already to protect them.” end_icon