This week, the United States Navy launched its drone prototype, the X-47B, from the deck of the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush off the coast of Maryland. The X-47B is the first drone that has proven successful in launching from and landing on an aircraft carrier, giving the military the capability of launching drone strikes without first setting up a local base first.
While it is not clear if the Navy will choose to ultimately build a fleet of the jet-powered, radar-avoidant heavy strike X-47Bs, or the lighter and cheaper propeller-based Predator-style drones, it is clear that the military is now committed to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as the backbone of the nation’s future air presence.
Drones are also becoming all the rage outside of the military, as personal and commercial use of the flying robots expands. With federal regulations pending to permit drone use in domestic airspace as early as September 2015, there is a rush to stake a claim in this already blossoming industry.
“I think we’re going to see many commercial applications and much more civilian development than in the military,” said Missy Cummings, director of the Humans and Automation Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “In 15 years, you could look up in the sky and see UAVs doing window washing and building inspections. You also could see every jealous ex-husband or wife following their significant other around. For good or bad, we are on the cusp of a new era.”
In light of this development, since 2012 schools have emerged to train students in the development, maintenance and piloting of UAVs. While currently drones are only permitted to be used by the military and by law enforcement, and while personal use of drones are currently limited to line-of-sight use at a height no greater than 400 feet away from populated areas, safe use laws currently being developed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will open UAVs to a litany of potential commercial applications.
“When the FAA opens things up, some of the robotics companies describe it for them as being the same as what the Internet did for desktop computers,” said Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.”
“I was talking with an executive at one company about this,” Singer continued. “They already do a good business, but their primary client is the Department of Defense. Add in state, local and federal law enforcement agencies, and the marketplace potentially has something like 21,000 new clients.”
Teaching about drones
Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Jerry LeMieux is among those who feel that drone use will redefine American use of airspace. His online school, the Unmanned Vehicle University, offers training in UAV piloting, maintenance, system integration and construction, and offers educational opportunities ranging from certificate-level work to postgraduate research. Primarily an online university, LeMieux is currently in the process of establishing a brick-and-mortar facility in Arizona.
While the Unmanned Vehicle University is recognized to be the first attempt to offer civilian UAV training in the United States, it is by far not the only such school. The University of North Dakota offers programs in its aviation department in unmanned aviation operations and Kansas State University offers certificate programs in unmanned aerial systems. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is investigating the potential role of drones in the media and information gathering.
As of 2012, 81 American organizations have applied to the FAA for permission to operate drones for educational or research purposes. More than a third of the list are major universities.
“There’s an attractiveness to these small aircrafts, because it doesn’t require the same kind of investment that is required for a manned aircraft,” said Michael Braasch, an electrical engineer with Ohio University’s Avionics Engineering Center. “And with electronic sensor packages being pretty small, you can do a lot of interesting research, even on a small aircraft.”
In conversation with Mint Press News, LeMieux expressed his view that commercial drone use is the wave of the future. While he regrets that UAVs were first introduced to the public in a possibly invasive role with the military and law enforcement, he feels that UAVs offer a tool that would simplify complex measurements and keep humans away from hazardous situations.
For example, depending on the sensor payload a UAV is carrying, erosion studies can be made easily. Forest fires can be accurately tracked. Farmland can be precisely surveyed. Rescue teams would have a greater range of sight without the use of cumbersome helicopters. Construction teams could conduct safety inspections without having to rig up an inspector. Future innovations could lead to UAVs capable of managing heavy payloads, which would permit operations like automatic crop dusting, remote fire fighting, delivery of sensitive goods, such as medicine to remote areas and pilot-free air transport.
Earlier this month, it was announced that Google has provided venture capital to California-based startup, Airware, which produces operating systems and control computers for UAVs. Based on what is happening with UAVs in other countries, the developers at Airware believe that the commercial-grade UAV market in the United States is ready to take off.
“It’s definitely a nascent market, but there is a huge unmet need,” said Airware CEO Jonathan Downey.
Libya, Japan and the Galapagos Islands use UAVs to monitor illegal fishing. Angola, Nigeria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia use them to patrol oil pipelines. In Nepal, UAVs are used to prevent poaching of tigers and rhinoceroses.
In Russia, UAVs are being used in the archaeology of burial mounds. Costa Rica is using the technology to study volcanic clouds to predict future eruptions. Crop dusting in Japan is almost exclusively done by UAVs. In the Serengeti, National Geographic is using UAVs to remotely film a documentary. In Brazil, UAVs are used for pesticide application and to discover crop deformities and infections.
“Fantasy abounds in the drones industry as people toss around a myriad of ideas for utilizing drones – imagine a drone, instead of a person in a car, delivering a pizza; or think of spying on your neighbors by using your drone, and then reporting your neighbors to the local police,” said Jason Wolf, a partner with Koch, Parafinczuk & Wolf and a UAV researcher. “Property insurance companies are likely to be early adopters of the technology.”
“To be sure, adjusters, engineers and restoration companies already make extensive use of aerial surveys, satellite photos and micro-targeted weather data. But drone usage will be different because it will essentially allow three-dimensional modeling of an entire home and neighborhood via video. In addition, claims adjusters can easily perform a neighborhood survey in which an adjuster can identify each branch ripped from trees, every displaced roof shingle, and all other storm debris. A UAV can also encircle a home, slowly, meticulously providing still and aerial pictures of every inch of the structure. Even after catastrophes, when overworked adjusters have to adjust numerous claims in a day in order to provide rapid payment to their policyholders, it will be virtually impossible for the adjuster to miss anything, because he will have drone video and photos to scan the entire facility,” Wolf continued.
While the United States leads the world in military use of drones, the nation is being left in the dust internationally in peacetime applications of the technology. This may be because Americans still distrust the technology. Incidents such as the 2010 crash of a Mexican surveillance drone in El Paso, Texas, or the announcement that Splash News plans to use a camera-equipped UAV to capture paparazzi photos from above have created a hard-line “privacy first” mentality among many Americans. Added to the frustration the idea that any American can buy or build a recreational UAV and operate it (as long as it stays in sight of the operator and does not exceed 400 feet in altitude), the concerns about privacy intrusions become valid and poignant.
The spy above
Legislation limiting drone use has been enacted in Alaska, Florida, Idaho, Montana and Virginia with legislation pending in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee (where the governor is set to sign into law), Texas, Vermont and West Virginia — per the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
In addition, three bills limiting domestic drone use currently are being considered by the House. The “Preserving American Privacy Act of 2013” (H.R. 637), introduced by Rep. Lloyd “Ted” Poe (R-Texas) and co-sponsored by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), would require government entities using UAVs to minimize the collection and disclosure of personally identifiable information (PII). The “Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act” (H.R. 972), introduced by Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) and introduced in the Senate by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), would require a warrant for evidence gathering using a drone for criminal investigations. Rep. Edward Markey’s (D-Mass.) “Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act of 2013” (H.R. 1262) would change the FAA’s governing rules in order to make public all approved licenses for UAV use.
These bills all focus, in part or in totality, on the notion of unwarranted surveillance via drones. Catherine Crump, a lawyer with the ACLU, says it is the ACLU’s hope that legislation on both the federal and state level is issued that explicitly bans the use of drones by law enforcement for unwarranted evidence-gathering. But Crump does point out that the Fourth Amendment already offers blanket protection against unreasonable search and seizure. As such, a camera-equipped drone violating a person’s private space would be unconstitutional.
«There are good reasons to believe that drones can’t be used to peer into peoples’ houses, or to take thermal imaging of those houses, unless law enforcement gets a warrant based on probable cause,» she said. «Because people have a reasonable expectation of privacy against those forms of surveillance.»
«Without a warrant, I think it’s clear that if the police fly into a backyard to look into the window of a home, that’s unconstitutional,» adds John Villasenor, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. «The Fourth Amendment has served us well since 1791. It can continue to do so in a world where unmanned aircraft are widely used.»
However, many see the continuing use of drones domestically as a potential collision of the First and Fourth Amendments, particularly in regard to personal drone use. «People have a right to take photographs in public. But that doesn’t mean that drones aren’t going to pose some tricky privacy issues,» Crump said.
She added: «I don’t think most of us would want our neighbors to fly drones over our backyard while we’re sunbathing there.»
«Most Americans don’t think about monitoring crops, search-and-rescue operations or the numerous other civilian uses of this technology,» said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) — who is involved in crafting domestic drone legislation — in regard to America’s fear reaction to the word “drone.”
«They think of Hellfire missiles and the headline-grabbing work our government is doing overseas.»