STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Next, we travel to an American backyard and send up a drone. There is a story here. Recreational drone operators are affecting business plans for drones. The Federal Aviation Administration has given permission to 1,300 businesses and individuals to fly unmanned aircraft. You may have heard that Amazon and Google have imagined using drones to deliver packages. Other companies might use them to help sell real estate or inspect utility lines. The trouble is that recreational users have already revealed potential safety problems. And that is why NPR's Brian Naylor begins his story with a home operator.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: We're in the backyard of Tom Gorner's suburban Virginia home. The sky is blue and clear, and it's a great day to fly.
TOM GORNER: So the first thing I'm going to do is I'm going to power up the radio controller which I have in my hand, and then I'm going to put power to the drone itself which is powered by a battery pack.
NAYLOR: Gorner is founder of Skyscape Services. His drone is a couple feet across and can be held in one hand. It has a small video camera and can send images down to his laptop or iPad. He plans to use it to photograph real estate for prospective buyers and golf courses to lure new members. Like Gorner's drone, the commercial UAV industry - that's Unmanned Aerial Vehicle - is taking off. Rose Mooney is executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, which the FAA has designated to oversee drone testing. We spoke after a recent public meeting the group held. Mooney says there is a lot of potential for commercial drone use.
ROSE MOONEY: Things like search and rescue and roof inspection - things where people are actually getting hurt today, doing those dull, dangerous, dirty jobs initially but actually making this the next pioneering technology in aviation.
NAYLOR: But with the optimism, there's cause for concern, specifically the alarming rise in the number of close calls between recreationally flown drones and other aircraft. There have been more than 700 sightings of drones by aircraft pilots so far this year according to the FAA, involving everything from commercial jets to aerial firefighters. Matt Scassero runs drone testing for the University of Maryland.
MATT SCASSERO: If one person has a major mishap, or just the sheer number of incidents continues to grow, it's going to give the entire industry a bad name. So one of our goals is to really increase that public outreach and education so folks know what the rules are and they operate responsibly.
NAYLOR: FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told NPR recently he too is worried about what he calls the dramatic upswing in sightings of wayward drones.
MICHAEL HUERTA: The whole idea of these drones coming into conflict with other aircraft is something that I'm extremely concerned about. There are a lot of people operating model unmanned aircraft with little or no aviation experience. They're buying them at hobby shops, they're buying them at camera stores, so the whole concept of what are the rules of the air is a very new thing to them.
NAYLOR: The FAA is testing an app that will enable recreational drone users to find out if they're operating within a restricted area, which means within five miles of an airport. Recreational drones are also supposed to fly below 400 feet and away from stadiums. Violators can be fined tens of thousands of dollars.
GORNER: OK, we're going to start it up again.
NAYLOR: Back in his backyard, Tom Gorner, who, like all commercial users, has had to hire a licensed pilot to fly his drone, says he's frustrated by those who act maliciously.
GORNER: It's not helping the people who want to do this and do it for a business, or for hobby even, that just want to fly safely.
NAYLOR: After a drone landed on the White House lawn some months ago, its manufacturer, which also made Gorner's drone, updated the operating system so that it won't fly in restricted airspace. Now there are calls to equip all drones with similar technology as a way of keeping drones away from planes. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.