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Ready for Takeoff Part I: Civilian Drones

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 18, 2011

A Fire Scout Robotic Helicopter

    During a routine test flight off the Pacific Coast of Latin America last April, a drone launched from a U.S. Navy frigate relayed back video of an open skiff speeding across the water.   The U.S.S. McInerney had just come off duty chasing drug smugglers in the Caribbean, and the crew thought they knew what they were seeing.  The speedboat was 20 miles ahead of the frigate and moving away as the sun went down.  In the flight control room, operators instructed the drone to take up the chase.
Over the next three hours, the speedboat stopped twice and shut down its engine, a standard practice to listen for law enforcement aircraft.  The drone, a 23-foot-long helicopter, trailed a mile or two behind, watching via night-vision camera.  It was small and covert enough to evade detection.  It also had the range to persist where a manned Seahawk helicopter, roughly twice its size, would have had to turn back and refuel.   By the time the speedboat made its rendezvous with a fishing boat, under cover of darkness, the McInerney was on its tail.  A flare went up as a Coast Guard boarding party moved in.  The startled suspects immediately began dumping contraband, but 132 pounds of cocaine were recovered at the time of the arrest.

Until now, drones have been confined largely to war zones, where they have made a controversial reputation for killing both terrorists and civilians—so much so that the word “drone” itself causes some manufacturers to bristle.  They say it ties them too narrowly to combat applications.   Instead, they prefer acronyms like UAV or UAS (for unmanned aerial vehicle or system), or RPA (for remotely-piloted aircraft).  But by whatever name (and “drones” seems to be sticking), unmanned aircraft will increasingly be overhead doing civilian work in this country.  “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” says Peter Singer, an analyst with the Brookings Institution—is it going to be 2012, 2014?—the point is, it’s going to happen.”

In fact, it is happening now.  Unarmed versions of the military Predator already patrol thinly populated stretches of the nation’s borders.  They also fly into cities as hurricanes are passing through, sending down images to alert first responders to stranded survivors and downed utility lines.  Backers and builders of drones say drones will soon also move into other jobs considered too “dull, dirty, or dangerous” for human pilots.  To monitor marine mammal populations off Alaska, for instance, oil companies now rely on small manned aircraft flying at 300 feet, 200 miles offshore, in icy conditions.   But a drone operated by the University of Alaska at Fairbanks recently did the job quietly enough not to scare off the animals—and at no risk to human life.  Likewise, when smoke grounded conventional manned aircraft during a 2009 forest fire in Circle, Alaska, a drone provided infrared imagery that allowed officials to determine that no evacuation was necessary.  And during the accident this spring at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the world’s largest drone analyzed the emergency from high altitude, while a backpack-size drone went inside to inspect the crippled reactors at close quarters.

Though plenty of people disagree, Mary “Missy” Cummings, director of MIT’s Humans and Automation Lab, says drones will quickly lead to the demise not just of the “white scarf and leather jacket” pilot culture—but of human pilots period.   She first saw the coming change in the early 1990s, she says, when she was a Navy fighter pilot landing a highly-automated F-18 on an aircraft carrier.  “I saw how well it could fly on its own.  On carrier landings, it always did better than humans.”  At some airports, Cummings notes, Boeing and Airbus jets can already take off and land without human hands on the controls.   She predicts that within 10 years cargo flights will travel without human pilots, and commercial passenger traffic will ultimately follow.

And here’s the bad news that could keep this from happening: A few months after that drug bust at sea, U.S. Navy operators in Maryland experienced a “lost link”—like losing your wireless connection– with the same model drone, a Northrop Grumman Fire Scout, as it was traveling at an altitude of 1700 feet and a speed of 70 miles an hour, straight toward Washington, DC.  Military forces went on alert and contemplated the risks of shooting down a 3000-pound robotic helicopter in a heavily populated metropolitan region.  The drone briefly entered restricted air space within 40 miles of the capital.  Then, before the order for F-16 fighter jets to scramble, technicians on the ground finally regained control and turned the drone back to base.  (Continued)

One Response to “Ready for Takeoff Part I: Civilian Drones”

  1. […] this year, I reported in Smithsonian on the dawning age of civilian drones.   I did not imagine Greenpeace would be among the pioneers, but Reuters reports that the […]

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