Unmanned planes have proved their worth in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now those who build them are thinking beyond the battlefields to a day when pilotless drones may fly in the nation's civilian airspace.
Defense industry and government officials taking part in a symposium on robotic technology and unmanned flight met at the Baltimore Convention Center yesterday to begin an effort to bring that day closer.
They hope to develop uniform standards and regulations for unmanned aircraft, with the goal of convincing the Federal Aviation Administration that the planes can fly safely alongside commercial helicopters and passenger jets.
FAA approval - likely years away - is regarded as a critical step in exploiting the commercial potential of unmanned aerial vehicles, which have so far found prominence only as government research platforms and military surveillance and strike planes.
By crafting regulations for such things as safety and airworthiness, airframe design and operator training, defense industry officials hope to move beyond the months-long, case-by-case certification process required before a pilotless aircraft can fly in American airspace.
They also hope the FAA will grant access to the nation's top 30 metropolitan areas - skies from which unmanned craft are banned - and thus open a broad new market for commercial and government uses.
"It could be law enforcement, it could be homeland security, maybe television or movie production, monitoring the coastline - this would open up all kinds of possibilities," said Daryl Davidson, executive director of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the trade group sponsoring the symposium.
The commercial-standards meeting was a small part of the unmanned systems conference, which began Monday with flight demonstrations at Patuxent River Naval Air Station and continues today and tomorrow at the convention center.
Most companies involved in the industry niche of unmanned vehicles are using the gathering to showcase their newest innovations - even as many of those innovations remain on active display overseas, courtesy of the U.S. military.
Nearly a dozen different unmanned vehicles have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan, including Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Global Hawk surveillance craft and the Shadow 200 tactical surveillance aircraft built by AAI Corp. in Hunt Valley.
Ground troops have experimented with smaller, hand-launched craft with mounted cameras that can peek inside buildings or around corners.
The Predator surveillance plane, used extensively in Afghanistan, became the first pilotless aircraft to launch missiles in combat.
But while most pilotless craft were developed with the military's needs in mind - and with the military's money - manufacturers have long believed that commercial uses represent a lucrative potential.
Companies have proposed using surveillance drones for corporate security, or to monitor pipelines and oil platforms.
And besides the military, government agencies such as the Coast Guard or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are considered potential customers.
A California company called AeroVironment Inc., which developed high-altitude solar-powered aircraft for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has formed a subsidiary called SkyTower Inc. in hopes of marketing the aircraft as a commercial telecommunications platform, akin to a low-flying satellite or a "12-mile-high tower."
"We think there's a tremendous market for the technology, and NASA has a strong interest in commercializing it as well because of the economies of scale, which can drive down their costs," said Stuart Hindle, vice president of strategy and business development for SkyTower. "It works for everyone."
The FAA is cooperating to devise new standards for building, operating and certifying unmanned aircraft.
A spokeswoman said the process is so young, however, that officials have yet to determine how the standards will be developed and what they will address.
Yesterday's meeting was designed simply to form an organization that can begin the process.
But industry and government officials both say they imagine a day when the FAA will implement standards for maintenance, design, stability, training and operation of unmanned aircraft similar to those in place for commercial jets - a move that could allow pilotless planes to share the skies.
Safety No. 1 concern
"Our main concern is safety, that they're not flying too close to commercial airplanes and that they are, somehow, communicating with air traffic controllers," said Alison Duquette, a spokeswoman for the FAA.
"But as long as safety is considered, we think it is important to allow new technology."