A few nations have jumped ahead in legalizing the routine use of small drones by commercial operators. For unmanned aircraft weighing less than 330 pounds, the European community allows its members to pursue their own rules, and several, including the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, and the Czech Republic, have already stepped ahead of the United States by passing rules that permit commercial use of smaller drones.
British company HexCam, for example, began flying its small camera-equipped multi-copters-for-hire earlier last May. It received certification of the drone gear and its safety practices under the United Kingdom’s Light Unmanned Aircraft System Scheme, a set of airworthiness regulations for drones weighing less than 44 pounds. The clearance allowed the company to get a license from the Civil Aviation Authority and acquire insurance. “It is great that we are able to operate commercially in the U.K., and I hope that the FAA opens U.S. airspace,” says Elliott Corke of HexCam. Approximately 100 commercial operators are licensed to fly small drones around Britain.
Despite trepidation at FAA delays, technology that can only move forward so fast, and a privacy rights argument that is unlikely to be resolved soon, the new world of drones is coming. Like so many things invented for war, unpiloted vehicles can be given a practical purpose in civilian life. One day, not long into the future, you might be lost in the woods and relieved to be the target of a little drone buzzing overhead.
James R. Chiles has been writing about history and science for 33 years. Random House published his social history of helicopters, The God Machine, in 2007.