Perhaps it was only a matter of time before the makers of military drones began looking for a civilian market, and now that appears to be likely, privacy concerns notwithstanding.

Police departments could be replacing manned helicopter units and surveillance as soon as 2025, provided that drone makers can convince the Federal Aviation Administration that their products are safe enough for unmanned flight over major population centers.

One such demonstration has already occurred: General Atomics received a special waiver from the FAA to fly its MQ-9B  275 miles from an airfield in Yuma, Arizona, to the company’s private airstrip in Grey Butte, just north of Los Angeles. Once drone makers can produce aircraft that can withstand a direct lightning strike and fly in all kinds of weather, look for the FAA to begin the process of approving them for sale to local police departments.

What are the advantages of drone vs. helicopter? Drones will be capable of much longer dwell time over cities and when conducting surveillance of suspects. Plus, drones will feature a variety of sensors — including facial recognition — which will be a boon to police department intelligence-gathering. Finally, drone flight is not subject to human limitations.

Source: Defense One

Why it’s on our radar: The biggest concerns regarding the operation of unmanned drones over major urban centers is safety and privacy. The latter issue has already been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989 involving a police helicopter unit that spotted someone illegally growing marijuana in Florida; the high court ruled that police helicopters flying over private property did not violate privacy because anything that can so observed is in the open. Also, privacy rules governing police helicopters would not apply anyway to drones flying at 2,000 feet.

So the real issue becomes that of safety, and in this respect drone-makers already have a good record. Drones have been used by the military to strike targets overseas but they have also been used by federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, to conduct border surveillance. When drone manufacturers can prove their craft airworthy and safe, the FAA will no doubt approve them.