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Trade show raises hopes for civilian drones in U.S.

LAS VEGAS — In the land of casinos, it may be jarring at first to see a small box-like robot creeps across the floor as it stops, readies itself and catapults about 30 feet into the air.

Nearby, a basketball-sized drone with whirling rotors hovers 5 feet above the floor. Walk a little farther, and there is a large water tank with an underwater robot darting from side to side.

Welcome to the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's North America trade show, an increasingly diverse collection of unmanned technology.

For years, drone makers came here to woo military brass and strategists hungry for the latest wartime technology. But the landscape has drastically changed at this year's trade show. The exponential growth in the Pentagon budget has been cut, and the small talk here is about deals being made for police helicopters, crop-dusters and hobby aircraft.

This is the brave new world of civilian drones — soon to play a big role in the skies over the United States. And no better place to see what the future holds than the booths and displays on items for sale.

This increase in demand prompted Michael Huerta, acting administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration, to address the crowd Tuesday. His agency is charged with integrating unmanned aircraft into U.S. airspace beginning in 2015 and issuing regulations to ensure public safety and personal privacy.

There is enormous hunger here to get into the skies over the United States. Police agencies want drones for air support to spot runaway criminals. Utility companies believe they can help monitor oil, gas and water pipelines. Farmers think drones could aid in spraying their crops with pesticides.

Despite all the conventioneers' enthusiasm, the industry faces many hurdles before drones play a big role in everyday life, said Ron Stearns at aerospace consulting firm G2 Solutions in Kirkland, Wash.

"I'm expecting the market five years from now to look a lot like it does today," he said, noting that the FAA has already fallen behind schedule in issuing rules on small drones.

Trade show raises hopes for civilian drones in U.S. 08/12/12 [Last modified: Sunday, August 12, 2012 4:30am]
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