DENVER -- When you hear the word drone you probably think of the unmanned aircraft the military uses to carry out attacks in the Middle East.
But we have learned there are thousands of drones, some as small as your thumb, flying over Colorado and the rest of the country right now.
Colorado police departments are using drones to track criminals. But experts say the unmanned aircraft will soon be used by first responders, farmers, realtors, even news stations.
Still, critics say the drones are just another way for big brother to watch you.
Researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder are launching drones into severe weather. The unmanned aircraft are flown from the ground using lap tops and joy sticks.
Once airborne, the drones collect data and give researchers an eye into the storm. CU Professor Eric Frew told us, “You don’t want to put a person in there, tornadoes and those storms can be violent, so you don’t want to fly near them. An unmanned aircraft is the solution to get the science measurements that are needed.”
At a research facility inside the University of Pennsylvania, the drones are programmed to fly in formation. They can also shoot through a window and attach to a wall. Why would a drone need to do that? So they can be used as spies in the sky.
Aviation Expert Steve Cowell has heard the criticism. “Everyone thinks, gee they are going to be spying on me, I’m going to see this little thing poking in through my window.” But he said, “If you’re a good person chances are that’s not going to happen.” However, he said criminals are already being watched by police departments that are using drones for surveillance.
In Westminster, police launched a drone to search for missing 10-year-old Jessica Ridgeway.
Cowell said by 2015 drones will be part of everyday life. “These vehicles are going to be capable of spraying chemicals, of hauling cargo, of fighting fires in inaccessible places,” and “There’s thousands of them waiting to go into use for farmers, for field surveys, for the motion picture industry.”
Cowell is part of a committee that is coming up with rules and regulations to allow drones to safely share the airspace.
Agencies that want to fly drones have to first notify the FAA and show they have a safety policy in place.
The FAA has to give its permission each time they fly.
Front Range Airport in Watkins has applied to be a designated test site for drones.
If the FAA approves, there will be even more drones flying over Colorado.