It's been a long time coming, but the U.S. Congress just handed two orders to the Federal Aviation Administration: to upgrade its radar system to GPS and to open up manned airspace to unmanned drones. The latter is causing some concern, but both of these things, if done right, could mean some great things for aviation.
The concerns aren't about whether or not heavily armed Predator drones (pictured above) will be flying around, but more about this kind of stuff, as reported by USA Today:
Commercial pilots have raised safety concerns. Although pilots are required to spend time flying planes and are tested on their abilities to hold licenses, no similar rules exist for the controllers of remote aircraft. Likewise, the FAA doesn't certify drones like passenger planes against engine failure or wings falling off.
Drones operate with far fewer rules than planes in general, so there's a lot of ground that needs to be covered and defined before 2015. Also, there's this:
A key unresolved question is how to avoid collisions. The philosophy since the Wright brothers has been for pilots to "see and avoid" other aircraft. Without a pilot on board, the strategy for drones is "sense and avoid," perhaps giving off a signal that other planes receive. (USA Today)
Unmanned drones already operate inside U.S. airspace, but only by a handful of groups, such as the military or government agencies (for border patrols, for instance). This all happens in restricted airspace — by Sept. 30, 2015, Congress is telling the FAA create rules so that a UAV can play in the same space as a passenger jet.
So, what kind of drones can you expect? Well, anything, honestly. There is that chance for more surveillance, of course, but there's also a chance that scientists will be able to use UAVs for cheap research rather than renting planes and helicopters, or that UAVs could improve search and rescue operations or, say, firefighting efforts. Police departments, too, may opt to mix in UAVs with helicopters, because of the lower cost associated with them.
One thing is clear, though: UAVs need rules.
The bill itself, as mentioned, took quite a while to get through. You can read more about that by the Associated Press over on NPR (it's in the last half of the article).