Hexacopter

Spectators watch a demonstration of DJI Innovation's S800 Hexacopter. (SAUL LOEB, AFP/Getty Images / August 13, 2013)

Despite concerns about privacy and public safety, Maryland is seeking to open its skies to commercial drones under a federal program that could make the state a powerhouse in the burgeoning unmanned aircraft industry.

Maryland is among 24 states vying to be one of six sites the Federal Aviation Administration will use to test how to integrate the remotely piloted aircraft into U.S. airspace. With thousands of jobs at stake, the competition has been fierce and expensive.

While Congress has debated the use of covert military drone strikes in the Middle East, the proliferation of unarmed drones in U.S. airspace has received less attention. The FAA has issued more than 1,400 permits for drones since 2007, mainly to police departments and civilian federal agencies.

The agency estimates that the number of small commercial drones will grow to 7,500 within five years.

In addition to law enforcement, unmanned aircraft are already being used in other countries to dust crops and monitor oil spills. Florida officials are testing a drone that can spot mosquito larvae in hard-to-reach mangrove trees. China is experimenting with drones that can deliver packages — just as the U.S. military has used such aircraft to deliver cargo to troops in Afghanistan. Real estate agents want to use them for aerial photographs of properties.

Commercial drones are coming, said Matt Scassero, a retired Navy captain and pilot who is leading the effort to make Maryland one of the test sites. The only question, he said, is how well the state will be positioned to benefit.

"The bottom line ... is jobs," said Scassero, head of the unmanned aerial systems test site at the University of Maryland's A. James Clark School of Engineering, which has taken the lead on the state's proposal. "Maryland stands to gain a lot."

The FAA prohibits drones for most commercial activity and issues permits on a case-by-case basis for law enforcement, firefighting, border patrol and other government functions. The test sites will help the agency change its airspace rules to accommodate the growing demand for unmanned aircraft owned by businesses.

The main trade association of drone manufacturers, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, estimates that the industry will have an $82 billion impact on the U.S. economy by 2025. More than $2 billion of that would come in Maryland — regardless of whether it is selected as an FAA test site — in new jobs, tax revenue and other spending, according to the association.

Supporters envision a world vastly aided by unmanned systems, where firefighters can search burning buildings with less risk, farmers can scan fields for early signs of insect damage — limiting the need for pre-emptive insecticide use — and scientists can analyze hurricanes and other dangerous weather from afar.

But privacy advocates have raised concerns about the expanded use of drones, which unlike a noisy helicopter can stealthily carry a camera up to a window, for instance. State lawmakers and local officials across the country are proposing limits, including Del. Ron George, an Anne Arundel County Republican running for governor.

George's legislation would require police to obtain a warrant before using a drone. The proposal stalled in committee during this year's General Assembly session.

Mason Clutter with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers says the FAA should have outlined more specific privacy requirements for the test sites. Her group and others want clear rules in place now, before drones become more commonplace.

"Test site or not, the average citizen wants to know the drone flying above them is not spying on them," she said.

Others are worried about the safety of pilotless airplanes overhead. Those concerns were stoked when a 44-foot Navy drone crashed last year on the Eastern Shore across the Chesapeake Bay from the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. No one was injured.

Addressing those concerns, supporters say, is part of the reason why the FAA is creating the test sites.

Commercial drones are generally prohibited in national airspace, but the FAA issues permits for some limited uses. Meanwhile, the agency is making it easier for public entities, such as police, to fly them. The FAA announced in 2012 that law enforcement agencies can fly drones up to 25 pounds, but those aircraft are prohibited over assemblies of people and heavily trafficked roads.

Current drone use can potentially take place up to 50,000 feet for the most sophisticated aircraft. Model airplanes, by contrast, are limited to 400 feet and can be flown only by hobbyists.

To address the expected increase of unmanned flight, Congress last year required the Obama administration to develop rules to integrate drones into U.S. airspace. Lawmakers mandated that the FAA set up the six test sites.

The agency is set to announce the sites in December.