Robotics Industry Launches PR Offensive

8/10/2011
By Sandra I. Erwin
Unmanned aircraft have been the darlings of Pentagon reformers, military planners and the U.S. weapons industry for the better part of this decade. Surveillance drones armed with precision-guided munitions have become the weapons of choice for U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan for their ability to deliver bombs on target and serve as the eyes in the sky that help clear the fog of war.
The military’s — and CIA’s — embrace of unmanned air vehicles led to the escalation of the so-called “drone wars” under the Obama administration.
But the widespread use of UAVs in airstrikes also created a PR problem for the drone industry: Its products were no longer just just seen as cool novelties, but as “killer drones.”
UAV and ground robot manufacturers are trying to push back on that negative stereotype. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which is gearing up for the industry’s biggest trade show next week in Washington, D.C., hosted a news conference at the National Press Club Aug. 10 to talk about the warm and fuzzy side of robotic machines.
“While many headlines have been devoted to the ‘killer drones’ and battlefield robots, these same platforms have many other uses,” said an AUVSI press release. “They can extend the reach of first responders, scientists and aid agencies while keeping people out of harm’s way.”
Several executives were on hand at the news conference to discuss the humanitarian roles of robotic equipment.
Retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. David "Duncan" Heinz, vice president of iRobot Maritime Division, said that while his company is better known for the Roomba vacuum cleaner and for its battlefield bomb-detecting robots, its underwater systems are at work monitoring the Gulf of Mexico. Robots also helped Japan’s nuclear engineers keep track of deadly radiation in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster that followed the March 11 tsunami. A similar pitch was made by retired Army Lt. Col. Charlie Dean of QinetiQ Corp., who talked extensively about the role that his company’s industrial-strength robots played in the tsunami relief effort in Japan — moving debris, transporting materials and monitoring nuclear reactors.
Air Force Lt. Col. Ricky Thomas, who oversees Global Hawk UAV operations, said the high-flying spy aircraft have aided NASA in studying hurricanes, have assisted relief workers by providing surveillance over Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and over Japan’s Fukushima plant.
Also offering praise of UAVs was John Priddy, director of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s National Security Operations Center at Grand Forks, N.D. The Air Force’s venerable Predator UAV has made headlines for its strike missions in Pakistan, but it also flies to protect the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, Priddy asserted. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has a growing fleet of Predator aircraft that have been used for humanitarian duties such as monitoring the flooding Red River in North Dakota and Minnesota, and wildfires in the southwestern United States.
The litany of humane duties performed by robots, alas, was not enough to deter a representative from the antiwar women-for-peace group “Code Pink” from badgering the speakers about the damage that drones were causing to innocent civilians in war zones. Code Pink activists, known for picketing outside military trade shows and for interrupting congressional hearings, claim that unmanned air strikes that killed 14 al-Qaida leaders also killed 700 Pakistani civilians: a ratio of 50 innocents to one target. “Ground the drones!” screamed a Code Pink flier. Another antiwar advocate at the news conference noted that Israel’s defense forces have targeted civilians in the Gaza Strip using drones and were spying on them. Would the U.S. military do the same here at home? Not likely, said Thomas, the U.S. Air Force officer. There are just too many laws in this country that protect citizens from military surveillance, he said. When the Air Force was asked to deploy a Global Hawk in support of firefighters who were combating huge wildfires in southern California in 2007, the service had to jump through untold legal hoops, and finally had to receive presidential approval to operate the aircraft.
The UAV industry not only is seeking to improve the public’s perception of its products but also is hoping to persuade the Federal Aviation Administration that it should relax current domestic restrictions on the use of unmanned aircraft. Limitations to UAV flight in U.S. airspace are hindering the industry’s growth and getting in the way of job creation, AUVSI contends. The association estimated that, if UAVs were allowed to fly with fewer restrictions in U.S. airspace over the next 15 years the industry could create more than 23,000 jobs, which would equate to $1.6 billion in wages. “UAS integration will have a tremendous impact on the aerospace industry and aid in driving economic development in many regions across the country,” an association brochure noted.

Topics: Robotics

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