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A trade fair for drones and other high-tech gadgets comes to Washington

A Microdrones md4-200 unmanned aircraft vehicle hangs above the exhibition floor at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 13, 2013. AUVSI is the world's largest nonprofit organization devoted to advancing the drone and robotics community. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Drone aircraft were not just raining down missiles on fighters in Yemen last week. The unmanned craft were also on display in a convention hall less than a mile from the White House.

It was a clear sign that unarmed drones are coming to American skies soon.

From bird-sized craft to a scale model of a giant Air Force MQ-9 Reaper, known as a hunter-killer drone, the huge Washington Convention Center was packed with drones and other high-tech gadgets for both government and private uses. Organizers called it the largest drone show in the world.

The three-day trade fair featured nearly 600 exhibits where they showed how drones and other robots can help in all sorts of domestic duties. Law enforcement, search and rescue, selling real estate and checking pipelines were all covered. So were fighting forest fires and protecting wildlife.

Don't Call Them Drones 

But first, some say, the industry has to ease the public's fear of drones.

Most people in the fast-expanding industry won’t even use the word drone. They prefer names like unmanned aerial vehicle or remotely piloted aircraft. That's because when people hear the word drone, they think of deadly strikes by the Obama administration against suspected terrorists from Pakistan to North Africa.

Some Americans also worry about something flying overhead and spying on them.

“Obviously the public is concerned,” said David Ison. He is an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

In the giant convention hall, sensors scanned people's body heat invisibly. Convention goers could operate simulators. These let them pretend to send drones screaming over the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

They watched toy-sized helicopters flutter and take pictures in front of home-sized windows. Some states pitched places to test drones. Colorful banners from big companies hung from the ceiling next to dull, gray models of unmanned aircraft.

"This Is A Growth Industry" 

Commercial drones are supposed to be allowed to fly over the country by September 2015. Experts estimate that 10,000 unmanned aircraft could be flying five years later. Big and small companies want to supply low-cost portable aircraft to the U.S. market. There might be a lot of money to be made.

“This is a growth industry,” said conference spokeswoman Melanie Hinton.

Drone technology is developing quickly. In fact, so quickly that aerospace company Aurora Flight Sciences showed off a craft inexpensive enough that it could be used in firefights, forest fires or other tasks where it might not survive. It is made of plastic foam. Magnets attach propellers and a camera to a two-foot wingspan that can be folded and stored in a backpack.

IRcameras builds video cameras that can detect heat. Jeff Leake, who works for the company, pointed out footprints on the screen from people walking past.

“You can see the heat from their feet left on the floor,” Leake said. The camera can detect a change of less than 1 degree Fahrenheit, he explained.

In the booth for Corsair Engineering,  Richard Becker spun a computer ball and hit a button. The screen showed a small, gray drone flying over a rocky valley in Afghanistan. A thin column of smoke could be seen at the end of a box canyon. “All this is exactly as you would see in real life,” he said.

The simulator is used to teach soldiers how to fly the ScanEagle. The craft is a drone with a 10-foot wingspan used by the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. Indiana State University and the University of North Dakota have purchased simulators, for about $65,000 each. They will be used to teach aviation students about drone operations, Becker said.

Drones "Bring Better Capabilities"

Panels at the conference discussed challenges facing the industry, including shrinking defense spending and possible legal suits from civil liberties groups and others if fleets of drones start flying over America.

Lt. Gen. James Barclay recalled how the Army was initially reluctant to even conduct research about using drones.

“I can remember back to early on in Army aviation, we said, ‘Unmanned systems, no way; it’s got to have a man in it,’” Barclay said. “Everyone was scared that ... at the end of the day, everything would become unmanned, and it would do away with our jobs and stuff."

He added, “But I will tell you that that’s not the case. We know that it will bring better capabilities to our force. And that is the future of our Army."

Part of the way through Barclay’s remarks, a protester was removed from the room after unfurling a banner that demanded an end to lethal drone strikes.

“I think the only person that had a question has already left the room,” Barclay told the crowd at the end of his talk.

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