SARITA, Texas – If someday soon it's possible to have a hot pizza delivered to your door by a drone, it may be because of work now underway on the remote and sandy shores of the Texas Gulf Coast.
There, a team of scientists and engineers is researching how to fly airplanes without pilots. They're conducting their research on behalf of the Federal Aviation Administration in this unpopulated area, mainly so no one gets hurt.
To be clear, they're not there to expedite a food order to your house. In fact, many bristle at the suggestion that in just a few years the work they're doing could lead to drones buzzing among birds, treetops and tall buildings, making restaurant and retail deliveries in major metro areas.
Instead, they say, the real benefit of unmanned aircraft will be in police work, firefighting and other public services — in which remote-control machines can gather intelligence without putting humans at risk.
"There's so many needs for these things today — the forest fires, hurricanes," said John Hugeley, mission commander for a series of unmanned test flights conducted last week by Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. "But I'd rather see us crawl, then walk, then run."
But the urgency behind their work is clear. Federal regulations or not, drones are exploding in popularity.
Many people with an entrepreneurial spirit — and often a background in remote-control hobbies — are already buying drones for commercial uses. They are opening businesses that specialize in aerial photography, surveillance and thermal imaging — even though they don't yet have FAA certificates to operate their machines for profit.
Meanwhile, the FAA, urged on by Congress, is scrambling to set up guidelines for unmanned aircraft by 2015, before the situation gets worse.
It's now possible to buy an unmanned aircraft for a few hundred dollars and mount a high-definition camera on it that transmits dazzlingly clear images.
For those willing to invest $10,000 or more, flying machines are available that have up to eight propellers and can travel several miles. There are also fixed-wing aircraft that can stay in the air for more than 30 minutes on one battery charge.
"The technology is already here," said Glen Hiemstra, who founded Futurist.com and often speaks to business groups and government agencies about emerging trends. Hiemstra said he wouldn't be surprised if "millions" of flying devices are floating above cities worldwide within 15 years.
"So the next question is, 'Is it economically viable?' I think it is," he said. "Then it's only a matter of, 'Will people accept it, and will there be a regulatory system devised to make it possible?' I think it will, because it will be seen as an economic engine of its own."
On a limited basis, remote-control aircraft already patrol the U.S.-Mexico border. And in a few cities, they serve as an eye in the sky for police working car wrecks and missing-persons cases.
Hobbyists can fly remote-control aircraft as long as they keep them below 400 feet. Also, the FAA has allowed at least 327 research and law enforcement agencies to operate unmanned aircraft under specific conditions.
Otherwise, expanded drone use is being somewhat discouraged by federal and state officials. It's illegal to fly for commercial purposes without a certificate of authorization, an official said.
The FAA isn't aggressively pursuing those who lack certificates but could issue a cease-and-desist order to anyone operating without one.