- Associated Press - Saturday, July 12, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) - One of the hottest viral videos over the July 4th weekend was taken by a camera-equipped drone that flew through exploding fireworks.

Unmanned aircraft may still be most associated with weapons of war, but that’s quickly changing — and not just because of cool fireworks videos.

Businesses are eying civilian drones’ peaceful uses. And a handful of Georgia companies and colleges already are at work on ways to turn them into tools of commerce.

Possible commercial roles range from taking property shots for real estate listings to surveying crops for farmers. Amazon.com made headlines earlier this year by suggesting it might deploy a drone delivery fleet.

Commercial drone use is still generally illegal, though hobbyist and some research flights are allowed. The federal government is working on regulations to allow broader use, though. At the same time, debate is building over privacy concerns in a future world of camera-equipped drones overhead, prompting some public officials to call for privacy protections.

Here’s a survey of the landscape — and Georgia’s place in it — as commercial drones move toward reality:

Defining ‘drone’

For starters, civilian drones can be a far cry from the big, menacing versions used by the military. While size varies depending on use, many are more like the little remote-controlled aircraft hobbyists have flown for decades, except with much better technology. Small “quadcopters,” which can hover and are ideal for shooting video, already are popular with hobbyists.

The FAA says its upcoming rules for small commercial drones will apply to unmanned aircraft lighter than about 55 pounds. (The U.S. military’s Predator drone weighs more than 1,000.)

Despite the differences, the term drone has become attached to both military and civilian unmanned aircraft.

A few local companies have worked for the government on drone projects, and that business stands to grow if private business uses emerge.

Area-I, a Kennesaw firm with about 10 employees, has developed an unmanned aircraft that looks like a small-scale version of a Boeing 737. Developed with NASA funding and known as PTERA, the vehicle weighs in at less than 300 pounds and is used to test technology for manned aircraft.

Other firms in the game include Guided Systems Technologies, of Stockbridge, which makes unmanned helicopters for military use and has participated in tests for other uses. Adaptive Flight, in Marietta, makes autopilot systems and customized unmanned helicopters for law enforcement.

Academic connections

The government has granted 35 waivers that currently allow drone use in research by Georgia universities or university partnerships.

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