Drone industry eager to road-test science fiction

LAS VEGAS — Man may not rule the road for much longer.

Already set to fill the heavens within a few years, the drone industry is looking beyond the sky to opportunities on land and under water.

Driverless cars, pilotless submarines, unmanned cargo trucks — all long considered as science fiction — are now within the sector’s grasp. It may sound far-fetched, but for industry leaders, it’s a matter of when, not if, the technological dreams become reality.

“Eventually you’re going to have cars that have gyms in them. You’ll have your car, with an exercise bike, and you’ll be exercising while it takes you to work,” Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said Monday at the trade group’s convention in Las Vegas.

Aerial vehicles, Mr. Toscano said, still get the bulk of attention from the media and the general public. That is likely to remain the case in the short run, as the federal government prepares to issue private and commercial unmanned vehicle licenses starting in 2015. Such vehicles currently are used only by the military and law enforcement agencies.

Some analysts say unmanned cargo planes, already being touted by companies such as FedEx, are as little as five years from reaching the market.

Companies that now cater to the military are prepping for what is sure to be a multibillion-dollar boom in sales, as farmers, news organizations and even roof repairmen — who could dispatch small drones for inspections, saving vast amounts of time — line up to buy them.

“What we’ve done so far, we’ve only scratched the surface. This is going to explode,” said Rob Byars, director of special operations and UAS (unmanned aerial systems) solutions for Elbit Systems of America, the U.S. arm of an Israeli firm specializing in cutting-edge technology, such as drones.

But the sky, Mr. Toscano says, is only the beginning. Around the globe in a variety of sectors, machines are poised to replace, or at least greatly reduce, human involvement.

By the end of this decade, analysts predict, major American and foreign automakers will roll out cars that drive themselves by relying on a complex combination of GPS and other technologies to get their passengers from point A to point B.

In May, Nevada issued the first such license to Google, which since 2010 has been racking up miles on its driverless car.

Mainstream car manufacturers aren’t far behind. They already offer vehicles that parallel park themselves, or alert the driver if he begins to drift between lanes.

“The natural next step is to edge toward automation. By the end of this decade, we’ll see it,” said Richard Bishop, owner of Bishop Consulting, a Frederick, Md.,-based company dealing in intelligent vehicle applications and related technologies. Mr. Bishop moderated a panel discussion at the conference Monday that included representatives from BMW, Google, the Federal Highway Administration and others.

“We’re going to have the initial systems within a couple of years,” he said.

For all its benefits — chief among them, specialists say, will be vast reductions in drunken-driving crashes and wrecks caused by sleepy or distracted drivers — many challenges remain, Mr. Bishop said.

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