In less than two years, the United States will open its commercial airspace to drones, allowing these "unmanned aerial vehicles" to zip over American cities along with planes and helicopters. Tech enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, and law enforcement agencies are intrigued by the possibilities—burrito drones! And the roughly $6-billion-a-year drone industry has launched a lobbying offensive to ensure Federal Aviation Administration regulations are as broad and permissive as possible. But lawmakers and civil liberties groups are concerned about the privacy implications and potential safety issues, and at least nine states have passed laws restricting drone use by law enforcement, private citizens, or both.
While drones were never banned in the United States, up until now their use has been strictly limited, with the FAA distributing a few hundred permits to researchers and law enforcement. But Congress has ordered the agency to open commercial airspace to a wide variety of unmanned vehicles by late 2015. And when it does, drones are bound to proliferate. The FAA anticipates there could be as many as 30,000 drones hurtling through US airspace by 2020.
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