A father of five and a professed geek, Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired magazine, is always looking for child-friendly activities that could, he hopes, inculcate his children with techie sensibilities.
So one weekend in 2007, Mr. Anderson brought home a model radio-controlled airplane and a Lego Mindstorms robotics kit. Soon he and the children put the two toys together, making the Lego robot fly the plane. The result was a clunky Lego drone.
His children moved on to other playthings. But Mr. Anderson was captivated. And that led him to found an online network for amateur drone enthusiasts, DIY Drones, and to co-found a new business, 3D Robotics, which features an online store for those hobbyists.
“This is the future of aviation,” Mr. Anderson, 49, said. “Our children will not believe that people used to drive cars and drive airplanes. We are the weak link in the chain.”
Unlike traditional radio-controlled planes, unmanned aerial vehicles, or U.A.V.’s, have the capacity for autonomous flight and navigation. A radio-controlled plane becomes an autonomous drone when it is given an autopilot, which Mr. Anderson calls “giving the plane a brain.”
Mr. Anderson was among the enthusiasts here recently attending the third annual Autonomous Vehicle Competition, where teams of software programmers and robot tinkerers from across the country faced off in robot races.
Though many of the racers focused on antics like dressing their robots as dinosaurs, Mr. Anderson believes that unmanned aircraft are not just for fun-loving hobbyists. He argues that small drones outfitted with sensors could be used to assess emergency situations like that at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, to find survivors of natural disasters, to assist law enforcement and to monitor pipelines, agricultural crops and wildlife populations.
He is not alone in his thinking; many companies and research institutions are working to design drones for commercial and other uses. The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that around 50 companies, universities and government organizations are at work on at least 155 drone designs in the United States alone. Some companies already manufacture sophisticated drones. AeroVironment, based in Monrovia, Calif., designed the 4.2-pound, hand-launched Raven aircraft currently used by United States military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Still, there are privacy and safety concerns, which the F.A.A. mitigates by limiting commercial opportunities for U.A.V.’s and by requiring special permits for unmanned vehicles to fly in the National Airspace System — a complex web of more than 19,000 airports that involves about 100,000 flights a day and thousands of air traffic controllers.
So far, the agency has issued 240 such permits — the Department of Homeland Security received permission to patrol the border with drones, and NASA was allowed to fly unmanned aircraft to spot wildfires across the West.