WASHINGTON - The dawn of the age of aerial civilian drones is rich with possibilities for people far from the war zones where they made their devastating mark as a weapon of choice against terrorists.
The unmanned, generally small aircraft can steer water and pesticides to crops with precision, saving farmers money while reducing environmental risk. They can inspect distant bridges, pipelines and power lines, and find hurricane victims stranded on rooftops.
Drones - some as tiny as a hummingbird - promise everyday benefits as broad as the sky is wide. But the drone industry and those eager to tap its potential are running headlong into fears the peeping-eye, go-anywhere technology will be misused.
This photo taken Tuesday, shows flight test pilot Alex Gustafson carrying an InsituScanEagle unmanned aircraft in preparation for a flight in Arlington, Ore. It’s a good bet that in the not-so-distant future aerial drones will be part of Americans’ everyday lives, performing countless useful functions.
Since January, drone-related legislation has been introduced in more than 30 states, largely in response to privacy concerns. Many of the bills would prevent police from using drones for broad public surveillance or to watch individuals without sufficient grounds to believe they were involved in crimes.
Stephen Ingley, executive director of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association, says resistance to the technology is frustrating. Drones "clearly have so much potential for saving lives, and it's a darn shame we're having to go through this right now," he said.
But privacy advocates say now is the time to debate the proper use of civilian drones and set rules, before they become ubiquitous. Sentiment for curbing domestic drone use has brought the left and right together perhaps more than any other recent issue.
"The thought of government drones buzzing overhead and constantly monitoring the activities of law-abiding citizens runs contrary to the notion of what it means to live in a free society," Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said at a recent hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
With military budgets shrinking, drone makers have been counting on the civilian market to spur the industry's growth. Some companies that make drones or supply support equipment and services say the uncertainty has caused them to put U.S. expansion plans on hold, and they are looking overseas for new markets.
"Our lack of success in educating the public about unmanned aircraft is coming back to bite us," said Robert Fitzgerald, CEO of the BOSH Group of Newport News, Va., which provides support services to drone users.
"The U.S. has been at the lead of this technology a long time," he said. "If our government holds back this technology, there's the freedom to move elsewhere ... and all of a sudden these things will be flying everywhere else and competing with us."
Law enforcement is expected to be one of the bigger initial markets for civilian drones. Last month, the FBI used drones to maintain continuous surveillance of a bunker in Alabama where a 5-year-old boy was being held hostage.
In Virginia, the state General Assembly passed a bill that would place a two-year moratorium on the use of drones by state and local law enforcement. The measure is supported by groups as varied as the American Civil Liberties Union on the left and the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation on the right.
Gov. Bob McDonnell is proposing amendments that would retain the broad ban on spy drones but allow specific exemptions when lives are in danger, such as for search-and rescue operations. The legislature reconvenes on April 3 to consider the matter.
Seattle abandoned its drone program after community protests in February. The city's police department had purchased two drones through a federal grant without consulting the city council.
In Congress, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., co-chairman of the House's privacy caucus, has introduced a bill that prohibits the Federal Aviation Administration from issuing drone licenses unless the applicant provides a statement explaining who will operate the drone, where it will be flown, what kind of data will be collected, how the data will be used, whether the information will be sold to third parties and the period for which the information will be retained.