When Admiral Eric Olson, the former leader of U.S. Special Operations Command, talks of the challenges facing our nation, he pulls up a photo called “The World at Night,” which is dotted with specs of light in urban, stable regions of the globe, amid swaths of dark spots representing the dangers — often impoverished, third-world territories overrun with terrorists.
Over the last decade, and especially the last few years, special operations forces have depended on unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, to help fight in the shadowy spots. Whether a night raid to free humanitarian workers in Somalia, or surveillance footage amid the daring Bin Laden raid in Pakistan, drones — built with visual sensors, navigation and often weapons systems — have transformed the landscape of warfare, providing reconnaissance and first-strike capabilities in the most remote, and hostile, regions of the world.
While we’re used to the idea of UAVs being sent into the darker corners of the globe, get ready for the next stage of drones: machines that soar across our own friendly skies, as technological aids in business and law enforcement.
The U.S. Air Force began flying surveillance drones over Afghanistan in 2000, and armed vehicles shortly after September 11. In late 2001, the military leaned heavily upon UAVs during the war against the Taliban, and in a little more than a decade, CIA and military personnel today work side-by-side to launch strikes in countries from the Middle East to East Africa. In fact, according to PBS, the Pentagon alone has a cache of over 10,000 drones, usually used to spy, but also sometimes to kill.
But their use is sparking controversy in the media, as suspected terrorists, and even U.S. citizens, have been killed abroad.
Despite the hot-button issue, their heritage of drones actually dates back more than 100 years when, in 1896, Samuel Pierpont Langley, then-secretary of the Smithsonian, designed a steam-powered unit out of wood, fabric and steel craft. His flight at nearby Washington, D.C. gained a bit of attention, until the Wright Brothers soon eclipsed his invention with manned flight.
During both World Wars, rapid advances in manned aviation and military aircrafts refueled the idea of armed drones, prompting the government to enlist scientists like Thomas Edison to explore ways to use technology to improve pilotless aircrafts for the Naval Consulting Board. Those early models — small, explosive-laden planes — flew until their engines stalled after a predetermined number of revolutions, then headed into a terminal nosedive before exploding on the target below.
During the Cold War, a breed of smart robotic spies joined the military and intelligence arsenals. As ground troops fought in Vietnam, UAVs supplied important aerial surveillance of enemy positions and battlefield conditions, underscored by airmen awarding “purple hearts” to damaged or lost drones.
But it wasn’t until 1991, amid the closing days of the Gulf War, that UAVs hit its current critical milestone. “The aptly named ‘Pioneer’ provided live television surveillance of the battlefield and made history when Iraqis surrendered to one of the unarmed drones,” Kenneth Hough, a lecturer in the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote in an article. “[It was] the first time a robot had ever captured humans in war.”
Various types of drones are used in missions. Lethal “Predators” and their larger, more powerful “Reapers” hunt for suspects, flanked by a support of “Ravens” — a three-foot drone that fits in a soldier’s backpack — and high-flying “Global Hawks,” which can stay aloft for up to 35 hours.
Having flown thousands of missions over the past decade, drones today form a valuable part in the nation’s arsenal, having helped to find and eliminate around 70 percent of the top leadership of Al-Qaeda, according to PBS.
When you hear the word “drone,” you might imagine an unmanned plane, seeking and destroying targets from half a world away. But as the technology expands to civilian use, another chapter in history is being written, sparking debate and prompting regulators to scramble to accommodate a growing demand for commercial units.
At least 50 companies are developing some 150 commercial systems — ranging from miniature models to those with wingspans comparable to airliners, according to the Wall Street Journal. And that’s just the beginning.
Law enforcement and emergency services are turning to drones to survey for criminal activity, for example, and even search for missing children or sniff out hot spots in forest fires. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration granted approval for two commercial drone operations in the Arctic, to track oil spills and ice floes, keep tabs on migrating whales, and aid the U.S. Coast Guard in search-and-rescue operations, NBC News reported.
When hostile regions — often with jagged shorelines, steep cliffs and rough seas — are a challenge for land-roving vehicles, drones become an affordable alternative to rise above the terrain. In Peru, UAVs guard ancient archeological ruins, while in India, they protect animals from poachers in the remote Kaziranga National Park.
Meanwhile, Matternet leans on the advantages of drones to fly healthcare goods and supplies to often far-flung and inaccessible areas. Instead of investing in expensive, time-consuming road infrastructure, it networks a series of drones with landing stations and routing software to cover larger swaths of territory than traditional, ground-based transportation.
For example, in 2010, the company field-tested its first drone system after the devastation of the Haiti earthquake, delivering medication to the Petionville camp in Port-Au-Prince. Since then, current models can carry a two-kilogram payload over a 10-kilometer distance in just 15 minutes.
The drones fly at an altitude of 400 feet — safely away from other aircrafts — along preprogrammed routes between stations that can drop off or pick up payloads and take off again, and even automatically swap batteries.
“The vehicles that you can buy today for $1,000 can do amazing things, and it’s just the beginning of this technology,” Andreas Raptopoulos told the New Scientist. “Instead of big machines, like the ones the military use, we’re thinking small.”
But amid the excitement over the versatility of drones, critics are increasingly concerned about their potential drawbacks in civilian use. For every UAV to watch a farmer’s crops there are neighbors who view its “wonderful” use as a nuisance and invasion of privacy.
One issue at the heart of the debate concerns the minimum safe altitude of flight in the burgeoning airspace “public highway.” For example, regulations and permits outline a homeowner’s ability to build a home, plant a tree and erect a fence, but little attention has been focused on the height of airspace belonging to a home environment.
If farmers use drones to monitor crops, how high and close to a neighbor’s property line are they able to fly before they become dangerous?
Paul Voss, an engineer at Smith College who entered the drone industry by developing the world’s smallest altitude-controlled meteorological balloons, argued that the community should be active in addressing concerns before regulations are eased and the number of drones in flight skyrocket, according to Yahoo News.
Our sense of privacy is already challenged by commonplace technology like location tracking on smartphones, and even license plate readers that monitor cars. The introduction of commercial drones may erode our sense of privacy even further, and as a result, wider use of drones is moving slowly.
For example, according to the Seattle Times, the city’s police department abandoned its fledgling drone plans, after citizens questioned the intrusions into their privacy. Mayor Mike McGinn said he agreed to stop the program, and return the two 3.5-pound Draganflyer X6 Helicopter Tech drones, purchased by funding from a regional Homeland Security grant, which he planned to use during hostage situations and search-and-rescue operations and following natural disasters.
“It’s a wise decision,” Doug Honig, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, told the Seattle Times. “Drones would have given police unprecedented abilities to engage in surveillance and intrude on people’s privacy and there was never a strong case made that Seattle needed the drones for public safety.”
At a time when businesses and federal agencies are looking into drones, consumers are buying toy models like the $300 Parrot AR. The FAA estimates that within five years, about 7,500 commercial drones will take to the skies, prompting it to work with the military — since commercial drones are similar in operation to the aircrafts — to develop guidance to accommodate the growth of UAVs, protect the safety of the airspace and reduce nuisance and privacy factors.
The FAA already approved dozens of non-military uses — ranging from law enforcement and firefighting to wildlife monitoring and news coverage — but it has yet to allow them to fly through airspace where commercial, business and private planes travel.
“Airplanes today are really almost all flown by autopilot,” Lance King, a retired Air Force colonel and Pentagon expert, told US News. “To be able to turn that autopilot on and off from a remote location is really just a dial link. It’s not rocket science.”
Congress has mandated the FAA to develop a plan to safely integrate drones into U.S. airspace by 2015. One of the first steps includes commissioning a study of six test zones in national airspace. Several states and businesses are vying to become a test zone in hopes of gaining a foothold in what promises to be a burgeoning industry — along with the jobs that it promises. According to the FAA, as of mid-May, there are 25 applicants from 24 states competing to be selected as a FAA-certified site. New Jersey and Virginia applied together under the auspices of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
With businesses vying to get a piece of the emerging UAV market, and states eying the technology to improve their operations, commercial drones will soon fly the friendly skies above us. Whether they’re a technical marvel or an ominous sign, though, remains to be seen. ♦