After the high-profile shooting of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in 2010, Scott Rollefstad felt he had to do something to help keep other agents safe.
So the Tucson resident headed to his garage and, after several months of tinkering, emerged with a backpack-sized surveillance drone.
While Border Patrol already has military-scale drones on the border, Rollefstad said his 6-by-18-inch Cyclone 6 prototype can launch in minutes and be used for close-in surveillance, giving agents another set of eyes in the sky. "There's just no need for this type of blind, bumbling around in the bush, in our desert," he said of agents on the ground.
Rollefstad hopes to some day sell his drone to police agencies and others to help save lives. But he also knows that not everyone sees drones the way he does.
"The minute someone hears 'drones,' they think of the Afghan killing machines," he said.
That perception of drones as flying spy cameras and killing machines has raised concerns of privacy advocates and started the Federal Aviation Administration's regulation process. Congress and 39 states, including Arizona, have considered measures to limit the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. Florida, Virginia and Idaho have approved rules.
It comes as both government and industry analysts predict a surge in drones in U.S. skies, with smaller, cheaper machines opening new commercial and civil uses for drones that have mostly been in military use so far.
The FAA is set to develop new regulations for the commercial use of drones - largely prohibited now - by 2015. The agency estimates there will be 30,000 commercial drones operating by 2030.
That concerns people like Joe Hall, a spokesman for the Center for Democracy and Technology. When anyone can attach a visual or thermal-imaging camera and launch a hobby drone they can buy online, the opportunity for invasion of privacy is great, he said.
"Should people have to build bubbles around their property?" Hall asks.
Arizona Rep. Tom Forese, R-Gilbert, said any law needs balance and commonsense to protect private citizens, while encouraging a fledgling drone industry that could add thousands of jobs to the state's already robust aerospace and defense industries.
Analysts say Arizona, one of 37 states vying for one of six UAV test ranges the U.S. will designate, is poised to capitalize on the expected growth in jobs, once the FAA opens the skies to commercial drones. "Arizona should have a very robust marketplace," said Darryl Jenkins, of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
In addition to entrepreneurs like Rollefstad, Jenkins said large defense firms can also be expected to get into the civilian drone market. Once commercial drones are cleared, Jenkins predicts precision agricultural uses will dominate the market, with public-safety applications in second place.
A 3-DAY SERIES
• Today: Number of drone businesses in Arizona to grow.
• Monday: Flying tractors hold promise for farms.
• Tuesday: Drone-design schools in the state.