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Topic: General Interest: The Drones Come Home
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
General Interest: The Drones Come Home
Posted: May 6, 2013 3:24 PM
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From National Geographic, March 2013. pp. 122-133. See
NOTE: There are several colorful photosidebars in the article.
The Drones Come Home

Unmanned aircraft have proved their prowess against al Qaeda. Now
they're poised to take off on the home front. Possible missions:
patrolling borders, tracking perps, dusting crops. And maybe watching
us all?

By John Horgan [Photograph by Joe McNally]

At the edge of a stubbly, dried-out alfalfa field outside Grand
Junction, Colorado, Deputy Sheriff Derek Johnson, a stocky young man
with a buzz cut, squints at a speck crawling across the brilliant,
hazy sky. It's not a vulture or crow but a Falcon-a new brand of
unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, and Johnson is flying it. The
sheriff 's office here in Mesa County, a plateau of farms and ranches
corralled by bone-hued mountains, is weighing the Falcon's potential
for spotting lost hikers and criminals on the lam. A laptop on a
table in front of Johnson shows the drone's flickering images of a
nearby highway.

Standing behind Johnson, watching him watch the Falcon, is its
designer, Chris Miser. Rock-jawed, arms crossed, sunglasses pushed
atop his shaved head, Miser is a former Air Force captain who worked
on military drones before quitting in 2007 to found his own company
in Aurora, Colorado. The Falcon has an eight-foot wingspan but weighs
just 9.5 pounds. Powered by an electric motor, it carries two
swiveling cameras, visible and infrared, and a GPS-guided autopilot.
Sophisticated enough that it can't be exported without a U.S.
government license, the Falcon is roughly comparable, Miser says, to
the Raven, a hand-launched military drone-but much cheaper. He plans
to sell two drones and support equipment for about the price of a
squad car.

A law signed by President Barack Obama in February 2012 directs the
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to throw American airspace wide
open to drones by September 30, 2015. But for now Mesa County, with
its empty skies, is one of only a few jurisdictions with an FAA
permit to fly one. The sheriff 's office has a three-foot-wide
helicopter drone called a Draganflyer, which stays aloft for just 20

The Falcon can fly for an hour, and it's easy to operate. "You just
put in the coordinates, and it flies itself," says Benjamin Miller,
who manages the unmanned aircraft program for the sheriff 's office.
To navigate, Johnson types the desired altitude and airspeed into the
laptop and clicks targets on a digital map; the autopilot does the
rest. To launch the Falcon, you simply hurl it into the air. An
accelerometer switches on the propeller only after the bird has taken
flight, so it won't slice the hand that launches it.

The stench from a nearby chicken-processing plant wafts over the
alfalfa field. "Let's go ahead and tell it to land," Miser says to
Johnson. After the deputy sheriff clicks on the laptop, the Falcon
swoops lower, releases a neon orange parachute, and drifts gently to
the ground, just yards from the spot Johnson clicked on. "The Raven
can't do that," Miser says proudly.

Offspring of 9/11

A dozen years ago only two communities cared much about drones. One
was hobbyists who flew radio-controlled planes and choppers for fun.
The other was the military, which carried out surveillance missions
with unmanned aircraft like the General Atomics Predator.

Then came 9/11, followed by the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and
Iraq, and drones rapidly became an essential tool of the U.S. armed
forces. The Pentagon armed the Predator and a larger unmanned
surveillance plane, the Reaper, with missiles, so that their
operators-sitting in offices in places like Nevada or New York-could
destroy as well as spy on targets thousands of miles away. Aerospace
firms churned out a host of smaller drones with increasingly clever
computer chips and keen sensors-cameras but also instruments that
measure airborne chemicals, pathogens, radioactive materials.

The U.S. has deployed more than 11,000 military drones, up from fewer
than 200 in 2002. They carry out a wide variety of missions while
saving money and American lives. Within a generation they could
replace most manned military aircraft, says John Pike, a defense
expert at the think tank Pike suspects that the
F-35 Lightning II, now under development by Lockheed Martin, might be
"the last fighter with an ejector seat, and might get converted into
a drone itself."

At least 50 other countries have drones, and some, notably China,
Israel, and Iran, have their own manufacturers. Aviation firms-as
well as university and government researchers-are designing a flock
of next-generation aircraft, ranging in size from robotic moths and
hummingbirds to Boeing's Phantom Eye, a hydrogen-fueled behemoth with
a 150-foot wingspan that can cruise at 65,000 feet for up to four

More than a thousand companies, from tiny start-ups like Miser's to
major defense contractors, are now in the drone business-and some are
trying to steer drones into the civilian world. Predators already
help Customs and Border Protection agents spot smugglers and illegal
immigrants sneaking into the U.S. NASA-operated Global Hawks record
atmospheric data and peer into hurricanes. Drones have helped
scientists gather data on volcanoes in Costa Rica, archaeological
sites in Russia and Peru, and flooding in North Dakota.

So far only a dozen police departments, including ones in Miami and
Seattle, have applied to the FAA for permits to fly drones. But drone
advocates-who generally prefer the term UAV, for unmanned aerial
vehicle-say all 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. are
potential customers. They hope UAVs will soon become essential too
for agriculture (checking and spraying crops, finding lost cattle),
journalism (scoping out public events or celebrity backyards),
weather forecasting, traffic control. "The sky's the limit, pun
intended," says Bill Borgia, an engineer at Lockheed Martin. "Once we
get UAVs in the hands of potential users, they'll think of lots of
cool applications."

The biggest obstacle, advocates say, is current FAA rules, which
tightly restrict drone flights by private companies and government
agencies (though not by individual hobbyists). Even with an FAA
permit, operators can't fly UAVs above 400 feet or near airports or
other zones with heavy air traffic, and they must maintain visual
contact with the drones. All that may change, though, under the new
law, which requires the FAA to allow the "safe integration" of UAVs
into U.S. airspace.

If the FAA relaxes its rules, says Mark Brown, the civilian market
for drones-and especially small, low-cost, tactical drones-could soon
dwarf military sales, which in 2011 totaled more than three billion
dollars. Brown, a former astronaut who is now an aerospace consultant
in Dayton, Ohio, helps bring drone manufacturers and potential
customers together. The success of military UAVs, he contends, has
created "an appetite for more, more, more!" Brown's PowerPoint
presentation is called "On the Threshold of a Dream."

Dreaming in Dayton

Drone fever is especially palpable in Dayton, cradle of American
aviation, home of the Wright brothers and of Wright-Patterson Air
Force Base. Even before the recent recession, Dayton was struggling.
Over the past decade several large companies, including General
Motors, have shut down operations here. But Dayton's airport is lined
with advertisements for aerospace companies; an ad for the Predator
Mission Aircrew Training System shows two men in flight suits staring
stoically at a battery of computer monitors. The city is dotted with
drone entrepreneurs. "This is one of the few new industries with a
chance to grow rapidly," Brown says.

One of those entrepreneurs is Donald Smith, a bearish former Navy
aircraft technician with ginger hair and a goatee. His firm, UA
Vision, manufactures a delta-wing drone called the Spear. Made of
polystyrene foam wrapped in woven carbon fiber or other fabrics, the
Spear comes in several sizes; the smallest has a four-foot wingspan
and weighs less than four pounds. It resembles a toy B-1 bomber.
Smith sees it being used to keep track of pets, livestock, wildlife,
even Alzheimer's patients-anything or anyone equipped with
radio-frequency identification tags that can be read remotely.

In the street outside the UA Vision factory a co-worker tosses the
drone into the air, and Smith takes control of it with a handheld
device. The drone swoops up and almost out of sight, plummets,
corkscrews, loops the loop, skims a deserted lot across the street,
arcs back up, and then slows down until it seems to hover,
motionless, above us. Smith grins at me. "This plane is fully
aerobatic," he says.

A few miles away at Wright-Patterson stands the Air Force Institute
of Technology, a center of military drone research. A bronze statue
of a bedraggled winged man, Icarus, adorns the entrance-a symbol both
of aviation daring and of catastrophic navigation error. In one of
the labs John Raquet, a balding, bespectacled civilian, is designing
new navigation systems for drones.

GPS is vulnerable, he explains. Its signals can be blocked by
buildings or deliberately jammed. In December 2011, when a CIA drone
crashed in Iran, authorities there claimed they had diverted it by
hacking its GPS. Raquet's team is working on a system that would
allow a drone to also navigate visually, like a human pilot, using a
camera paired with pattern-recognition software. The lab's goal,
Raquet repeatedly emphasizes, is "systems that you can trust."

A drone equipped with his visual navigation system, Racquet says,
might even recognize power lines and drain electricity from them with
a "bat hook," recharging its batteries on the fly. (This would be
stealing, so Raquet would not recommend it for civilians.) He
demonstrates the stunt for me with a square drone powered by rotors
at each corner. On the first try the drone, buzzing like a nest of
enraged hornets, flips over. On the second it crashes into a wall.
"This demonstrates the need for trust," Raquet says with a strained
smile. Finally the quad-rotor wobbles into the air and drapes a hook
over a cable slung across the room.

Down the hall from Raquet's lab, Richard Cobb is trying to make
drones that "hide in plain sight." DARPA, the Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency, has challenged researchers to build drones
that mimic the size and behavior of bugs and birds. Cobb's answer is
a robotic hawk moth, with wings made of carbon fiber and Mylar.
Piezoelectric motors flap the wings 30 times a second, so rapidly
they vanish in a blur. Fashioning bug-size drones that can stay aloft
for more than a few minutes, though, will require enormous advances
in battery technology. Cobb expects it to take more than a decade.

The Air Force has nonetheless already constructed a "micro-aviary" at
Wright-Patterson for flight-testing small drones. It's a cavernous
chamber-35 feet high and covering almost 4,000 square feet-with
padded walls. Micro-aviary researchers, much of whose work is
classified, decline to let me witness a flight test. But they do show
me an animated video starring micro-UAVs that resemble winged,
multi-legged bugs. The drones swarm through alleys, crawl across
windowsills, and perch on power lines. One of them sneaks up on a
scowling man holding a gun and shoots him in the head. The video
concludes, "Unobtrusive, pervasive, lethal: micro air vehicles."

What, one might ask, will prevent terrorists and criminals from
getting their hands on some kind of lethal drone? Although American
officials rarely discuss the threat in public, they take it
seriously. The militant Islamic group Hezbollah, based in Lebanon,
says it has obtained drones from Iran. Last November a federal court
sentenced a Massachusetts man to 17 years in prison for plotting to
attack Washington, D.C., with drones loaded with C-4 explosives.

Exercises carried out by security agencies suggest that defending
against small drones would be difficult. Under a program called Black
Dart, a mini-drone two feet long tested defenses at a military range.
A video from its onboard camera shows a puff of smoke in the
distance, from which emerges a tiny dot that rapidly grows larger
before whizzing harmlessly past: That was a surface-to-air missile
missing its mark. In a second video an F-16 fighter plane races past
the drone without spotting it.

The answer to the threat of drone attacks, some engineers say, is
more drones. "The new field is counter-UAVs," says Stephen Griffiths,
an engineer for the Utah-based avionics firm Procerus Technologies.
Artificial-vision systems designed by Procerus would enable one UAV
to spot and destroy another, either by ramming it or shooting it
down. "If you can dream it," Griffiths says, "you can do it."
Eventually drones may become smart enough to operate autonomously,
with minimal human supervision. But Griffiths believes the ultimate
decision to attack will remain with humans.

Another Man's Nightmare

Even when controlled by skilled, well-intentioned operators, drones
can pose a hazard-that's what the FAA is concerned about. The safety
record of military drones is not reassuring. Since 2001, according to
the Air Force, its three main UAVs-the Predator, Global Hawk, and
Reaper-have been involved in at least 120 "mishaps," 76 of which
destroyed the drone. The statistics don't include drones operated by
the other branches of the military or the CIA. Nor do they include
drone attacks that accidentally killed civilians or U.S. or allied

Even some proponents insist that drones must become much more
reliable before they're ready for widespread deployment in U.S.
airspace. "No one should begrudge the FAA its mission of assuring
safety, even if it adds significant costs to UAVs," says Richard
Scudder, who runs a University of Dayton laboratory that tests
prototypes. One serious accident, Scudder points out, such as a drone
striking a child playing in her backyard, could set the industry back
years. "If we screw the pooch with this technology now," he says,
"it's going to be a real mess."

A drone crashing into a backyard would be messy; a drone crashing
into a commercial airliner could be much worse. In Dayton the firm
Defense Research Associates (DRA) is working on a "sense and avoid"
system that would be cheaper and more compact than radar, says DRA
project manager Andrew White. The principle is simple: A camera
detects an object that's rapidly growing larger and sends a signal to
the autopilot, which swerves the UAV out of harm's way. The DRA
device, White suggests, could prevent collisions like the one that
occurred in 2011 in Afghanistan, when a 400-pound Shadow drone
smashed into a C-130 Hercules transport plane. The C-130 managed to
land safely with the drone poking out of its wing.

The prospect of American skies swarming with drones raises more than
just safety concerns. It alarms privacy advocates as well. Infrared
and radio-band sensors used by the military can peer through clouds
and foliage and can even-more than one source tells me-detect people
inside buildings. Commercially available sensors too are
extraordinarily sensitive. In Colorado, Chris Miser detaches the
infrared camera from the Falcon, points it at me, and asks me to
place my hand on my chest for just a moment. Several seconds later
the live image from the camera still registers the heat of my
handprint on my T-shirt.

During the last few years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, unmanned
aircraft monitored Baghdad 24/7, turning the entire city into the
equivalent of a convenience store crammed with security cameras.
After a roadside bombing U.S. officials could run videos in reverse
to track bombers back to their hideouts. This practice is called
persistent surveillance. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
worries that as drones become cheaper and more reliable, law
enforcement agencies may be tempted to carry out persistent
surveillance of U.S. citizens. The Fourth Amendment to the
Constitution protects Americans from "unreasonable searches and
seizures," but it's not clear how courts will apply that to drones.

What Jay Stanley of the ACLU calls his "nightmare scenario" begins
with drones supporting "mostly unobjectionable" police raids and
chases. Soon, however, networks of linked drones and computers "gain
the ability to automatically track multiple vehicles and bodies as
they move around a city," much as the cell phone network hands calls
from one tower to the next. The nightmare climaxes with authorities
combining drone video and cell phone tracking to build up databases
of people's routine comings and goings-databases they can then mine
for suspicious behavior. Stanley's nightmare doesn't even include the
possibility that police drones might be armed.

Who's Driving?

The invention that escapes our control, proliferating whether or not
it benefits humanity, has been a persistent fear of the industrial
age-with good reason. Nuclear weapons are too easy an example;
consider what cars have done to our landscape over the past century,
and it's fair to wonder who's in the driver's seat, them or us. Most
people would say cars have, on the whole, benefited humanity. A
century from now there may be the same agreement about drones, if we
take steps early on to control the risks.

At the Mesa County sheriff 's office Benjamin Miller says he has no
interest in armed drones. "I want to save lives, not take lives," he
says. Chris Miser expresses the same sentiment. When he was in the
Air Force, he helped maintain and design lethal drones, including the
Switchblade, which fits in a backpack and carries a grenade-size
explosive. For the Falcon, Miser envisions lifesaving missions. He
pictures it finding, say, a child who has wandered away from a
campground. Successes like that, he says, would prove the Falcon's
value. They would help him "feel a lot better about what I'm doing."
Science writer John Horgan's most recent book is The End of War. Joe
McNally likes technology; his photos of the electrical grid appeared
in July 2010.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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