Tuesday, November 29, 2011

It's A Bird. It's A Plane. It's A Drone!

The FAA is considering new rules which would allow civilian use of drones. Presently, use of drones is restricted to military activities, and even at that are somewhat limited within the borders of the United States. Now these won't be the kind of drones we picture dropping bunker-busters in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They will be much, much smaller versions, most incapable of handling the weight of a serious bomb.

Initial use of drones would be restricted to law enforcement agencies, utility companies and farmers. The police want them for surveillance and tracking of escaped criminals. The utilities want them for patrolling power lines and water, oil and gas pipelines. Farmers see them as a far more efficient way to spray their crops than helicopters and small aircraft. I have visions of a scene out of The Fifth Element, with flying objects flitting about like cars on a stacked freeway. But I'm known for a fevered imagination.

Currently the FAA has issued 266 active testing permits for civilian drone use. The drones are not allowed in busy air corridors yet out of concern for lack of adequate "detect, sense and avoid" technology. But that is in the potential plan as well. Naturally, there are many other concerns which will need to be addressed before final implementation. The potential for criminal use is obvious. UCLA professor and fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for Technolgy Innovation says: "By definition, small drones are easy to conceal and fly without getting a lot of attention. Bad guys know this."

Still, the appropriate good guys seem to outweigh the bad guys. The leader in this potential boom business is AeroVironment, located in Monrovia, California. They are already the major provider of small drones for the military. They estimate that police agencies alone give them a potential new customer base of nearly 18,000. Above my old stomping-grounds in the mountains around Simi Valley, they have also been testing helicopter-style drones called Qube that fly 100 to 200 feet above the ground, matching height to terrain.

Unlike their big brothers at war, the Qubes weigh only five and a half pounds, are three feet long, and fit nicely into the trunk of a police cruiser. The Qube was unveiled at the Chicago convention in October of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. It drew considerable excitement with its multiple surveillance capabilities which are controlled by an easily-manned tablet computer. A representative of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department was particularly impressed. His department just purchased twelve new manned helicopters at a cost of $1.7 million each. Except for not carrying weapons or personnel, the Qube has superior surveillance talents, at a cost of $40,000 each.

The FAA still has to address certain important issues before test approval in regular civilian air lanes and over populated areas. First, they want to know what would happen if the tablet computer operated by a police officer lost communications with the drone. One FAA official put it quite simply: "What will we know and when will we know it when one of these things falls out of the sky, takes a nose dive into a backyard pool or crashes through some homeowner's roof?"

Even certain humanitarian and charitable organizations are interested in the drones. One company has already done studies proposing a network of drones to deliver food and medicine in remote areas which are otherwise largely inaccessible by road and difficult to service by manned aircraft. Real estate companies are interested because of the ability of a drone to quickly and easily show a potential buyer a large tract of land in real time.

Developers of the potential drone expansion into civilian life recognize there are inherent dangers. The small drones are unlikely to be very efficient at terrorist activity according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Says Gretchen West of AMVSI: "Small drones are not designed to carry weapons or explosive materials, and the extra weight makes the drones difficult to control." But if they can carry medical supplies, they can carry weaponized chemical and biological aerosol weapons that don't weigh as much as a conventional bomb or dirty nuke.

One critic pointed out that small drones are already being used to spray fields in England and Japan. "If they can spray fields with pesticides, they can spray cities with biochemical agents." Many experts acknowledge this, but also say that strict controls would make it extremely difficult for terrorists to get hold of a drone capable of serious damage, let alone the weaponized biochemical agent that the drone would potentially deliver. Still, the danger is not to be easily dismissed.

Finally, there's the usual concern over privacy. Even perfectly normal, non-conspiratorial folks might not like the idea of a surveillance drone casually taking pictures of them skinny-dipping in their backyard pool. But mostly, it's the abstract concern that will be raised. In fact, the ACLU already has. Catherine Crump of the ACLU says: "It's important that the FAA is scrutinizing the safety of the technology, but they should also make sure Americans' privacy is maintained."

"Having cheap, portable, flying surveillance machines may have a tremendous benefit for law enforcement, but will it respect Americans' privacy?" Somehow, I think she may be more concerned about filming of suspected criminal activity than she is about the generic right to privacy of the much larger body of ordinary law-abiding citizens. But since she has a point, I won't question her motives any farther.

One thing I am absolutely sure of. If the FAA can sort out and solve the potential problems, this is a potential boon to the economy. Without having to hire a single public employee, and without having to invest a single taxpayer dollar, this industry is truly shovel-ready and will produce both new jobs and generate legitimate tax revenue.

Therefore, I fear the FAA will not solve the problem because it is a federal agency beholden to the Obama administration's policies of business-squelching and creation of federal "ownership." Why lend money to a profitable going concern when you can lend it to pie-in-the-sky technologies which are not even close to being shovel-ready and which have a startling track record of bankruptcy?

What are your thoughts on civilian drones?


Tennessee Jed said...

strict controls will prevent them from being used to spread bio-chemical agents, eh? Yeah, sure . . . .

There is a part of me that feels in a free society these can be developed. There is no question that like a suitcase dirty bomb, eventually something bad will happen. Scary thought.

AndrewPrice said...

Drone are the future, there's no denying that.

Tehachapi Tom said...

I fly radio controlled model aircraft as a hobby.
Some of the fellows in our club fly helicopters.
If the budget allows one can event fly jet aircraft that use miniature turbo-jet engines.
Any of these toys could be used for nefarious activities if one desired to do such. They amount of fuel or battery left.
We are governed by the American Model Association (AMA).
With AMA membership is insurance to cover accidents, as long as one is flying with in the AMA rules and regulations.
As for larger remote controlled aircraft or unmanned aircraft (UAV) they have been used in side the US already.
NASA deployed one a couple of years ago to observe and via telemetry provide data relative to wildfires. The information provided was stunning and timely.
The large Santa Barbara fire had an unknown rapidly expanding zone of fire that was unknown to the fire Commander directing his assets.
When the UAV acquired information was made available to the ground Commander he was able to redirect his assets to address the new threat.
With that level of information and the potential for covert surveillance to aid our law enforcement community I would have to agree that they should be deployed in the US.
After all binoculars can be used improperly, yet are widely available and in use by many.

Individualist said...

Oh Lawhawk

When I first read the title of the article and saw the word Drones I thought Why is Lawhawk talking about Obama people flying on planes....

Seriously though, if I do not want a drone flying near me than I can probably effectively stop it from happening through the use of Radio Frequency jammers or white noice generators.

It will be interesting to see the tech war that is generated by the people making the drones and the people making devices to inactivate them.

Unknown said...

Tennessee: It's definitely a quandary. The drones seem like a great idea, but I still have that lingering doubt in the back of my mind about security.

Unknown said...

Andrew: It just seems like one of those ideas that would be nearly impossible to stop. And on balance, we probably shouldn't want to stop it. It's still a little scary, though.

Unknown said...

Tehachapi Tom: There's no denying that these little cuties could be of great usefulness. And you just cited some of the reasons. As I mentioned, so far their use has been restricted to military and government functions, but I think that dam is about to break.

Unknown said...

Indi: You're more sophisticated than I am. I was thinking of a rifle or shotgun if one got too close to my place. LOL

tryanmax said...

There is a part of me that bristles at the fact that this new technology was illegal for civilian use before it was made legal. We do not live in a free society.

Unknown said...

tryanmax: Good catch. It should have been in reverse order, if at all.

BevfromNYC said...

Ooh, Oooh, can we get one? Can we? Can we? PPPlllleeeeeeaaaasssssse? I promise to take care of it!! Really! I swear! It could be our "drone-a-rama" and I'm sure the BRE's, poor face-challenged kittens, and sockpuppets would love it! Would you deny the poor face-challenged kittens a little happiness?

On a more serious note, this sounds like many accidents waiting to happen, but it is the wave of the future.

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving! I've been flying all day and boy are my arms tired. **bad-dum-bum**

ambisinistral said...

There's all manner of small drones and DIY drone kits out there. There's even a DIY Drone page.

Granted most of these are small and can't carry a payload bigger than cameras, but they're being fiddled with by a lot of people. Here's a YouTube video some occupy folks did of flying a drone over police lines.

ambisinistral said...

D'oh, I screwed up the video link.

Here it is: YuoTube drone riot video.

tryanmax said...

I may be new here, but I think we need a Drone-arama just to monitor the BRE's from what I've seen.

Unknown said...

Bev: LOL I really want one because I know the people just on the other side of my hill are up to something, and I want to spy on them.

Unknown said...

ambisinistral: That doesn't surprise me. It's a little hard to distinguish between a sophisticated toy plane and a small drone. I think the regulation comes when they could interfere with regular air traffic lanes or become large enough to do serious damage if out-of-control. Beyond that, the FAA probably doesn't care much about a small number of drones twenty feet off the ground. Until, of course, there are a lot of them and they grab another chance for government to interfere in private matters and find new sources of tax revenue and lots more jobs for government employees.

Unknown said...

Ambi: Thanks. The second link works.

Unknown said...

tryanmax: Cool. A Drone-A-Rama.

ambisinistral said...

Wait -- I've been thinking your name was LadyHawk all this time? When did you change it to LawHawk? ;-)

As for a government subsidy, paint it green and call it the Eco-Drone. That ought to get you a couple of million, especially if you've ever bundled for Obama.

Unknown said...

ambisinistral: I'm glad you're on our side. You'd make a great advocate for the EPA and the green weenies. LOL

USArtguy said...

Like any other new tech, it's usefulness and purposes are two-sides of the same coin. Obviously a lot of good can come of these contraptions. It just bugs me that the government will have yet another way to keep an eye on everyone.

Unknown said...

USArtguy: Yeah, I really have mixed emotions on Big Brother as well, but I guess it's going to happen whether we like it or not.

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