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Hundreds of UAVs - unmanned aerial vehicles - invaded Las Vegas last week. Not to worry - they were all safely contained in a convention center, as part of a meeting of drone manufacturers. As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, the industry is marketing small, inexpensive drones in an effort to open up a new market away from war zones.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Big military drones - like the Predator and Global Hawk - put remotely piloted vehicles on the map, and in the headlines. But for some time, ground forces have been shifting their focus to smaller vehicles, like the 4-and-a-half-pound Raven.
The Army has deployed over 5,000 Ravens. Cliff Brandt, product manager for small, unmanned vehicles for the Army, says soldiers love being able to figure out their own uses for these gadgets.
CLIFF BRANDT: From pack to launch, you're talking, you know, about five to six minutes. It has been used on IED emplacements, to track down incoming fire.
ABRAMSON: Manufacturers of these smaller drones are seizing on that flexibility, as they prepare to sell unmanned vehicles in the U.S.
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ABRAMSON: Last week, thousands of UAV makers filled the Mandalay Bay Convention Center with their wares. They stood like giddy children around a playground for drones. An area was fenced in with netting so attendees could get a safe view of these remotely piloted craft in action.
This still-unnamed copter system, from Lockheed's Procerus division, is sleek and black. Its four rotors let it maneuver and hover quietly for about an hour. But the real selling point, according to developer Todd Titensor, is that it has really good eyes.
TODD TITENSOR: It's also got a very small, dual-sensor gimbal on it.
ABRAMSON: That gimbal camera can automatically stay focused on a single object, as the UAV zooms by. That makes it a lot easier to use for police, who might not have as much time to train as a military user. And, Titensor says, this UAV has infrared vision.
TITENSOR: The first market segment, for us, will be the first-responder types - from police to search and rescue; people like that, that have a need to also put an eye in the sky, day or night. And if someone is lost, for example, the IR camera is going to pick them up.
ABRAMSON: Soon, local agencies will be able to pick up a device like this one, for under $50,000 - not cheap, but doable for bigger agencies. Many police are looking at these systems, but admit they still have to figure out exactly how to use them, and how to fix them when they break.
A good source of advice will be early adopters like Mike Hutt, of the U.S. Geological Survey. Based in Denver, Hutt has already been using UAVs to survey some of the Interior Department's 500 million acres of land. He's convinced - this is the future for land managers.
MIKE HUTT: I personally believe that we'll see more data being collected from UASs in the future, than with commercial satellite or aircraft operations.
ABRAMSON: For decades, USGS has relied on satellites and manned aircraft to monitor endangered species, or to chart volcanic eruptions in Hawaii. But Hutt says manned aircraft can't fly in bad weather, and satellites can't see through clouds. Small UAVs are much more flexible. And Hutt has another reason to be boosterish. While commercial users have to wait for federal regulations to loosen, the U.S. Geological Survey is already getting a pretty long leash from the Federal Aviation Administration.
HUTT: The goal is to be able to fly over all federal lands sometime in the not-too-distant future, with the small UASs.
ABRAMSON: The head of the FAA told the conference he will be moving forward quickly, to allow government and commercial users easier access to the skies. But UAV users face another challenge that could slow growth in this industry - concerns about civil liberties. Many conference goers were livid about media coverage, which they said focused only on potential spying by UAVs, not on their benefits. Law professor Gregory McNeal, of Pepperdine University, told the industry: You are not paranoid; privacy advocates really are out to get you.
GREGORY MCNEAL: They're interested in stopping the development of your systems, out of a misplaced fear of some potential government violation of privacy. And I'm up here to tell you, also, that they're much, much better than you at playing this game.
ABRAMSON: Privacy groups insist they are responding to a popular outcry over UAVs. That outcry might get louder the first time a hiker sees a small drone hovering above the trail. Or it could quiet down, if that UAV helps find a lost child.
Larry Abramson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.