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.
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.
With military budgets shrinking, drone makers have been counting on the civilian market to spur the industry’s growth.
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.