Unmanned Aircraft Proponents See Future Beyond Battlefields
Flying over London’s Tower Bridge and the Thames River, dozens of small unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with lights flew in formation displaying the iconic Starfleet Academy emblem in the night sky.
The demonstration, which took place in March, was an advertisement concocted by Paramount Pictures and Ars Electronica, an Austria-based company, to promote the recently released Star Trek Into Darkness film.
The light-hearted promotion stands in contrast to the images of war that UAVs often conjure and is an example of a growing interest to use unmanned aircraft for non-military purposes.
“The ability for us to utilize this technology is unbelievable,” said Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “It’s almost like the Industrial Revolution or when we made a determination that we would go to the moon. This has some real, tremendous capabilities.”
The agriculture industry would be one of the first to adopt commercial UAVs. They could help end global hunger, he said.
Precision agriculture carried out by UAVs could increase harvest yields significantly and feed rising populations, Toscano said during a panel discussion at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
“That’s where there is going to be a tremendous ability for us to be able to produce more food. So when you think that you will be able to feed … hundreds of millions of people, you can almost do away with starvation on the planet by utilization of this technology,” said Toscano.
Over the next five to 10 years, the agriculture industry will come to rely on UAVs, said Missy Cummings, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former fighter pilot.
“What’s happening right now is kind of a quiet revolution,” Cummings said. “This is an industry where we just can’t get enough people to do the job that we need done, and farmers desperately need the technology both for healthy crop surveillance [and] being able to see what’s happening with the tractors in the field.”
UAVs could also aid in the movement of goods.
In Afghanistan, Lockheed Martin’s K-MAX unmanned cargo system is already proving its worth. Two helicopters have delivered over 3.2 million pounds of supplies for the military since 2011.
The K-MAX, which has dual intermeshing rotors, can rapidly transport myriad items, including food, water, medical supplies and ammunition.
Domestic cargo companies will likely follow suit, Cummings said.
“I think that you will see the civilian cargo community go that way as well. There is certainly a lot of interest from FedEx and UPS, who can reduce costs quite a bit and possibly improve safety,” said Cummings, who predicted it would take about 15 years for the industry to adopt the technology.
For the moment, companies or agencies interested in using UAVs are stuck in limbo as they await new regulations and guidance. The Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 mandated that the FAA integrate unmanned aircraft into the domestic airspace by 2015. A key deadline establishing six pilot sites by August 2012 was not met.
Initially, UAVs allowed to fly in national airspace will be small — they will have to be less than 55 pounds and flown below 400 feet. Their introduction would be a boon for countless industries, said Toscano. Within three years of integration, 70,000 new jobs will be created and $14 billion dollars will be pumped into the economy, he said.
Back in London, the group behind the Star Trek promotion was Ars Electronica, a public company owned by the city of Linz, Austria. Almost every week performances are held in the city, said Horst Hörtner, senior director of the Ars Electronica Futurelab. When not performing for the citizens of Linz, the company tries to take the show to other cities and countries, such as England and Norway.
The swarm, as they are called, are modified Hummingbirds, also known as quadrocopters, built by Ascending Technologies, a German UAV manufacturing company. They can be used for large advertisements, like the Star Trek promotion, or even rented out for birthday parties. The company is constantly working on new concepts, Hörtner said.
“We … have hundreds of ideas concerning more astonishing possibilities with our swarms,” Hörtner said in an email to National Defense. “The ‘drone-vertisment’ is quite young, and it has … huge potential. The Star Trek logo really has just opened the door.”
Using UAVs for advertising purposes is an important stepping-stone toward inclusion of the aircraft in the domestic airspace, said Cummings.
“It may sound like a small event, but it’s actually a huge event because now we are really illustrating another aspect of drones which I don’t think many people think about, and that’s the entertainment aspect,” said Cummings.
For journalists, UAVs could also open up huge opportunities, said Michael Holmes, a journalism professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.
This fall, Ball State will begin offering a graduate-level class focusing on the use of drones in journalism, Holmes said. Students will spend about one-third of their time learning how to operate and fly DJI Innovations’ Phantom Quadcopters, which are equipped with GoPro cameras. The remainder of the class will be devoted to the study of the legal and ethical issues of using unmanned aircraft in journalism.
“What we want to focus on is, how do you use this effectively? How do you use it in a way that adds to the message, that adds to the news story, that adds to the persuasive message? We want our students to wrestle with thinking about best practices of storytelling. We also want the students to be wrestling with the ethical and legal issues,” said Holmes.
UAVs will add another layer to storytelling, Holmes said. For example, they are able to take low-altitude photography or videography that can accurately and intimately capture the devastation of a local flood, he said.
If the FAA allows news organizations to use the technology, it would help save money, Holmes said.
Purchasing manned helicopters for newsgathering purposes can be “daunting” cost-wise, Holmes said. An inexpensive drone could save organizations thousands of dollars.
Matthew Waite, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the founder of the Drone Journalism Lab there, said the cost benefits associated with unmanned aircraft are huge.
“The economic argument is actually the winning argument here for journalism. Those TV news helicopters are multi-million dollar aircraft and they cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to maintain,” Waite said. “[When] you’re talking about something that you can buy for less than a $1,000 and do just about what you need it to do, it’s a really, really powerful argument.”
Waite, like Holmes, also challenges his students to consider the ethical and legal ramifications of gathering news with remotely piloted aircraft.
“Just because you can [do something], doesn’t mean you should,” said Waite.
UAVs are also being used to monitor the weather. At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, scientists are using both small, hand-launched drones and large, long-endurance unmanned aircraft such as Global Hawks, said Robbie Hood, director of unmanned aerial systems at NOAA.
“There are times when it could be very, very useful in helping us to get detailed information in … [places] that we can’t quite get to with other kinds of assets,” said Hood.
NOAA is a data-driven organization, Hood said, and drones collect a tremendous amount of information and do it more cheaply than a satellite.
A Northrop Grumman-built Global Hawk can provide more data and coverage than a satellite because of its long-range and long-endurance abilities, Hood said.
“What a Global Hawk would be able to provide is a system that would be able to go out and stay with the storm much, much longer,” Hood said. “A satellite will pass over it once or twice, or you may have a geostationary satellite that’s going to take continuous pictures, but still you’re going to be able to take a closer look at a storm for a longer period of time, and it fills that niche that we can’t quite satisfy right now.”
NOAA is also making investments in AeroVironment-built Puma systems, Hood said.
“We really like those because they land in the water and a lot of the observations that we collect at NOAA are ocean-based,” said Hood.
At the World Wildlife Fund, unmanned aircraft will soon assist with animal conservation, said Carter Roberts, the organization’s president and CEO.
With a grant from Google, WWF plans to begin aerial tracking animals and poachers, Roberts said.
“In Nepal and in Namibia, we’re right now looking at using cell phone technologies to track animals,” Roberts said. “You’ve got a chip in a … rhino that can send text messages, that instead of being collected by a satellite, can be collected by a drone that NASA would have.”
The remotely piloted aircraft would then transmit data to rangers who can stop poachers “before it’s too late,” Roberts said.
Previously, the organization used satellite collars to track animals. The collars were costly and could be removed by poachers, Roberts said. UAVs would not only yield tremendous cost savings but would be more efficient, he said.
Poachers are becoming increasingly sophisticated, Roberts said. Just this year, Roberts expects poachers to kill 800 rhinos in South Africa.
“It’s become a huge crisis, and the bad guys are extremely sophisticated. They have night-vision goggles, they’ve got helicopters, they have all kinds of funding and resources, and we need to up our game to combat what they’re doing,” said Roberts.
Using thermal imaging cameras attached to an unmanned vehicle, rangers can track poachers, and then follow them back to traders who are the heads of the criminal syndicate. That’s the real upside for UAVs, Roberts said.
“That’s the way we’re going to interrupt this crisis,” said Roberts.
There are skeptics. It won’t be feasible economically for the aircraft to replace couriers or standard delivery methods for some time, said Konstantin Kakaes, a fellow at the New America Foundation.
“Yes, you can say you can get a drone for $300 but the cheap drones are not that capable, and the capable ones are not that cheap,” said Kakaes. “It’s going to take time because they not only have to be able to do something, they have to be able to do something cheaper than the alternatives can.”
And while unmanned aircraft have been invaluable during wartime, they will not, for the time being, be able to transition to peacetime operations, he said.
“If you’re flying into the mountains of Afghanistan, there are lots of reasons you might not want to have a pilot. That’s a lot less true if you’re flying cargo from Memphis to [Chicago] O’Hare. The benefits you get from not having a pilot in a warzone, many of those benefits are conspicuously absent over American airspace,” said Kakaes.