For years, we've regaled you here on with tales of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry. We've watched together as they originated in the hangars of former General Dynamics subsidiary General Atomics, gradually evolved into the multiple product offerings plying the airways over Afghanistan and Iraq, and now, finally, come back home to roost in the U.S. of A.  

It looks like UAVs are about to hit the big time; at least, they will if Boeing (NYSE: BA) has anything to say about it.

You want UAVs? Boeing's got 'em
Earlier this month, Boeing joined a multicompany push to get the Federal Aviation Administration to approve rules for use of UAVs in domestic U.S. airspace. Already, General Electric (NYSE: GE) has volunteered to promote the initiative by performing research on a "trajectory-based flight management system" for the FAA. Textron (NYSE: TXT) and General Atomics helped as well, sending the FAA Shadow and Predator drone flight simulators to play around with.

Now Boeing is providing actual UAVs for testing, specifically, a ScanEagle system including two of the small UAVs, which the FAA will test in restricted New Jersey airspace. Over in Europe, air traffic regulators just wrapped up a year-long study providing "decisive" evidence on how to use UAVs safely when mixed in among civilian air traffic. But back here in the U.S., we're still dawdling. Boeing hopes that providing ScanEagles to experiment with will help move things along, and enable the FAA to draft flight rules, design and construction standards, certification requirements, and related standards for the operation of "small UAVs" in U.S. airspace.

What's in it for Boeing?
First and foremost, note that operative term: "small UAVs." It refers to drones weighing less than 55 pounds, a spec that just happens to encompass -- you guessed it -- Boeing's own ScanEagle. The FAA hopes to establish rules permitting the operation of small UAVs by 2012. The faster these rules are set, the sooner Boeing can begin selling ScanEagles to nonmilitary buyers. Further down the road, you might see UAVs monitoring traffic conditions for the local news and providing a literal eye in the sky for your hometown "action weather" team! UAVs are also used to patrol the U.S. border with Mexico.

What's in it for investors?
Clearly, opening up these markets is in Boeing's interest, but not just Boeing's. UAVs fitting within the "small" definition include certain versions of Northrop Grumman's (NYSE: NOC) KillerBee, Honeywell's (NYSE: HON) T-Hawk, and almost every UAV ever produced by AeroVironment (Nasdaq: AVAV).

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Fool contributor Rich Smith owns shares of AeroVironment. General Dynamics is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. AeroVironment is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers choice The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.