NAPLES, Fla. - When you hear the word "drone" do you think military operation or local business? We discovered drones aren't just flying over Iraq and Afghanistan, they're flying over Florida! Over the next decade, experts are predicting that the unmanned aerial vehicle business or UAV's will bring in an estimated $89 billion worldwide. The U.S. is expected to dominate 62-percent of that market.
In the U.S. drones are used for everything from research to surveillance. They can fly 10,000 feet in the air, maneuver into tight places, and help law enforcement on the ground when they're up against the unknown like during standoffs or hostage situations. In Florida, the Miami-Dade police department already has one.
Drones took center state at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. Local Naples company, United Drones, was allowed to exhibit its products.
Gary Brecka, Executive Director for United Drones, was on hand to talk about unmanned vehicles and show them to visiting RNC delegates and a whole lot of law enforcement.
Whether the unmanned vehicles are on the ground, or in the air, the goal is the same: safety.
"We are concerned about protecting," explained United Drones founder and engineer, Curt Winter.
Curt spends his days, and some of his nights, at his Naples shop making what used to sound like science-fiction, into reality.
While the drones he builds do not have weapons attached, they are designed to be weapons ready, for the client to install.
"We're building things out of a movie set. I mean really, that's what this stuff is. People never dreamed they would see an ATV drone that has shot guns coming out of it. It sounds like something out of a G.I. Joe movie," said Curt.
He's hoping what he's developing will give law enforcement at the federal, state, and local level the extra protection they need and keep the bad guys, away.
The market for unmanned aerial devices is somewhat limited because the FAA is still trying to figure out how to safely allow them into national airspace. The FAA has until 2015 to figure that out. For now, the FAA is giving special permits to federal, state, and local governments and public universities, to operate UAV's under strict guidelines.
The University of Florida in Gainesville has that certificate and is using its unmanned aerial vehicle technology right now for research.
U.S. Geological Survey biologist and adjunct professor with UF Dr. Franklin Percival has watched UAV technology develop rapidly over the last decade.
"In the wildlife biology business, light aircraft are used in and have been used for a very long time," Dr. Percival explained.
And UAV technology means that people no longer need to take to the sky to conduct important conservation research.
"The leading causes for workplace mortality for wildlife biologists is light aircraft. So there is a safety component to this," he said.
A team of UF faculty, and students from disciplines like aeronautical engineering, to imaging and mapping, to photography and sensing specialists, have all had a hand in creating the university's UAV.
Ph.D. wildlife biology student Matthew Burgess started on the UAV project six years ago.
Part of his research includes using the unmanned plane to to take pictures of the Brown Pelican near Cedar Key. Using off-the-shelf cameras, Burgess is able launch the UAV and get an accurate look at where the birds are nesting.
"I think unmanned aircraft are going to have a tremendous impact on future applications. Whether it's law enforcement, natural resources, search and rescue, these types of applications, agriculture," said Burgess.
And other types of applications are just what United Drones hopes to tap into as soon as the FAA clears the way.
"Drones have a whole series of applications that are outside of weaponized military applications that have to do with the agriculture industry, for the pipeline and oil industry, for things like field irrigation.... there are still common high risk tasks that could easily be performed by a drone," added Brecka.
When it comes to drone use and surveillance, a number of privacy issues have been raised. Things like do drone searches violate someone's fourth amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure?
A congressional report suggests that the Supreme Court has already heard a number of cases involving aerial surveillance that would set guidelines for UAV use.
Other issues include figuring out how to prevent the hacking of drones and how to keep them out of terrorists hands.
Congress is working on addressing all of the above concerns. Again, the deadline to figure it all out is 2015.