Remote-controlled drones are much better at flying through smoke than human pilots: their infrared eyes can track the edge of a fire even through the thickest air. When the Forest Service asked the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to use unmanned aerial systems to monitor wildfires, the FAA said no, but offered an exemption: the Forest Service could fly the drone, so long as an operator on board another aircraft could see it at all times.
The K-MAX optionally-manned helicopter is a powerful battlefield work horse. Over the past 16 months, two (yes, just two) K-MAX drones delivered 1.45 millionkg of cargo to Marines in Afghanistan. This is simultaneously more like the future and less revolutionary than headlines about pizza-delivery drones would suggest. By 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration predicts there will be 15,000 civil and commercial drones flying over the US, doing jobs like transporting cargo and inspecting pipelines.
"One of my constituents built a 9-foot flying wing and sends me pictures of my house when he flies over," Representative David Schweikert (R-AZ) said wryly in a Congressional hearing today on how to regulate drones when they are granted expanded access to American airspace in 2015. It was almost the last statement in the hearing - held by the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) before the House Science, Space and Technology oversight subcommittee on unmanned aerial systems (the committee's preferred terminology for drones) - and it captured a few important points about the current state of drone law, and, perhaps, where it's headed.
A couple days ago, news broke in British tabloid the Daily Express that a drone was being used to track fugitive and alleged cop killer Christopher Dorner. The headline, amplified by a (since corrected) pickup from MSN, claimed that Dorner is "the first drone target on U.S. soil," and quickly spread to Global Post, the Blaze, and Gizmodo. It even inspired a speculative Op-ed in the the Guardian.