What Is a Drone?

Second posting in a three-part series (see previous post)

Recent news stories have familiarized us with military drones bearing names like Predator and Reaper. Popular television shows feature tiny spy drones, conjuring images of CIA black ops. You could be forgiven for assuming that drones are a new and pernicious misuse of government power. But what are drones, really, and how are they being used?

The word “drone” is a popular term for any one of several types of unmanned vehicles that fly, swim, or travel over land. Most drones have some type of human guidance, whether it’s a kid at the other end of the kite string or a soldier or sailor sitting at a control panel hundreds of miles away. The variety of functions and capabilities is reflected in a menagerie of abbreviations: UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), UAS (unmanned aerial system), RPV (remotely piloted vehicle), ROV (remotely operated vehicle), RPA (remotely piloted aircraft), UUV (unmanned underwater vehicle), and the list goes on.

Unmanned ground vehicles range from the Roomba automated vacuum cleaner to DARPA’s Big Dog robotic “pack animal”. REMUS vehicles (Remote Environmental Monitoring UnitS, operate underwater, taking orders from a human at a simple laptop computer or traversing a preprogrammed route. REMUS vehicles have patrolled Puget Sound, monitoring the temperature and salinity of the water. Specially adapted REMUS vehicles have surveyed New York City’s public water mains to check for leaks.

Aerial drone use is certainly not new. You might say that Benjamin Franklin used a drone kite to carry his metal key aloft during his experiments with lightning.

Oil burn experiment

1993 Newfoundland Oil Burn Experiment (Canadian Coast Guard photo)

More recently, miniature helicopters known as ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) flew through a smoke plume and monitored the air during the 1993 Newfoundland Offshore Burn Experiment, a collaboration between the U.S. and Canada in which a contained oil spill was set on fire in order to observe the effects on the surroundings and examine the after-products. (The helicopter in the photo at right is a full-sized, passenger-carrying helicopter carrying support crew for this event.) The Predator drones used in military operations are about the size of a glider plane. Some military surveillance drones are small enough for one person to launch by throwing them into the air (photo below). The U.S. Army is funding development work on hummingbird-sized drones that can fly into small spaces and avoid being noticed.

hand launched drone

Pvt. Patrick Hernandez practices launching a RQ-11B Raven. (USDOD photo by Pamela Redford, Fort Riley Public Affairs)

The Drone Next Door“, a May 7 Future Tense presentation at the New America Foundation (Twitter #FTdrones), focused on aerial drones. These unmanned vehicles operate with various degrees of autonomy. Automated aerial drones can operate without a human steering them, but they follow a specific set of instructions: fly this high, go that fast, travel this far in a specified direction. Autonomous drones can operate independently, executing a mission while making its own decisions under uncertain circumstances: locate and retrieve a specific package, but find your own way past any obstacles and recover from any mishaps you might encounter on the way.

Flying cameras are old technology, said Missy Cummings, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, and one of the U.S. Navy’s first female fighter pilots. What’s new about drones is their ability to make aerial imaging cost effective. The main limitations for drone-mounted sensors are weight and power requirements.

Is there any way of avoiding drone surveillance? Cummings facetiously mentioned anti-UAV hoodies. She noted that for every technology, there is an anti-technology. The Navy is very concerned with GPS denial technology, and is working to develop a drone that does not rely on GPS for navigation. Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, noted that signal interference, intentional or not, could pose a safety issue by disorienting the drone and possibly causing it to crash.

Drones are in widespread use for military operations, but are we in danger of being overrun with drones once their commercial use becomes legal in the U.S.? Konstantin Kakaes, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, cited several examples where military technologies failed to make the transition to the civilian world. Nuclear-powered airplanes and nuclear explosions as excavation tools never caught on. President Kennedy pushed for supersonic passenger jets, but the Concorde was a European project, and it was not a commercial success. One success story, GPS navigation, was not predicted to make the transition from military-only use. It succeeded because it provided unique capabilities, and the price came down as it became more widely used.

The KMAX, and unmanned cargo helicopter, proved useful in the remote regions of Afghanistan, but it was not as useful in the U.S. Barriers to technology adoption include production costs and infrastructure requirements such as refueling stations, said Kakaes. A technology that provides a unique capability in a remote, primitive, or hazardous area could lose out to cheaper and better competitors in a modern city.

Drones could, however, prove themselves useful in an urban setting if they could effectively increase capabilities and reduce costs for search and rescue missions (finding survivors of a building collapse, for example), crime scene investigation, traffic accident reporting, and missing person searches, according to Captain Don Roby of the Baltimore County Police Department.

Current FAA rules prohibit commercial use of drones, but under the new rules in 2015, they could reduce costs for traffic reporting and monitor environmental changes, said Matthew Waite, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor who founded the Drone Journalism Lab. Waite was not especially concerned about the possibility of airborne paparazzi on every street corner in the near future. “Journalists are horrible pilots,” he said, citing his and his students’ misadventures.

What about scientific research? “Cost is the biggest hurdle for science,” said Robbie Hood, Director of Unmanned Aerial Systems at NOAA. You’re looking at established technology, she said, with the UAV as just another observing system, a “force multiplier for science”. Satellites can provide snapshot views of the ground below, but UASs can stay with a weather system as it develops, providing a more detailed picture. This could enable NOAA to observe a hurricane as it first forms over the open ocean. As climate change opens up shipping lanes in the Arctic, drones will monitor shipping activity, oil spills, and detailed weather reporting that could help prevent ship strandings.

Carter Roberts, president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund, described how airborne drones are being used to monitor political unrest in areas where sensitive wildlife populations could be harmed. Drones also check for poaching activity, which WWF reports to the governments of the affected areas. Drones provide more immediate feedback than satellite collars, which can cost $10,000 each. Transmitter chips attached to an animal can send text messages to drones overhead much more cheaply. Thermal imaging can be used to reveal the presence of poachers at night, when they are most active. This opens up the possibility of pre-empting the poachers before they make their kill.

Previous post: Don’t Drone Me, Bro 

To come: Hashing it all out: How will we deal with the practical effects of having more unmanned vehicles in our daily lives?

Update: If you would just listen to the facts…

Janet Raloff, a friend of mine and a senior editor at Science News, has weighed in on the topic of how scientists can communicate effectively with the public on divisive issues such as climate change. In her May 29 online article, Climate skepticism not rooted in science illiteracy, she reports on an interview with Dan Kahan of Yale Law School, one of the authors of the Nature Climate Change article I cited in my previous posting. Raloff explores several approaches to interacting with a polarized public in her May 30 follow-up article, Depolarizing climate science.

What comes through most strongly in these articles is that divisions occur when scientific findings have a direct relevance to things that affect us every day, or findings that could make significant changes in our everyday lives. As far as I know, The Heartland Institute has not posted any billboards comparing people who believe in black holes or the law of gravity with Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. We accept these things because we can do so without making any changes in our daily routines.

Raloff cites political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who states that some of the most science-literate critics will listen to experts only to generate compelling counterarguments. What’s stopping climate scientists from doing the same thing — listening to the most rational, articulate deniers and opponents of climate change legislation in order to scope out what matters most to climate change deniers and formulating compelling counterarguments of their own?

Disruptive innovation is another possible approach — one that sidesteps the battleground altogether by providing people with alternatives that they adopt readily because they see a clear benefit to the new technologies. After all, no one waged a political war against paper phone books, wristwatches, or the Sony Walkman, and yet those things have almost completely fallen out of use by Americans under the age of 30, in favor of smartphones, smartphones, and smartphones. The main problem with this approach is that disruptive innovations are notoriously unpredictable. We cannot guarantee the timely arrival and widespread adoption of any particular form of alternative energy or resource-conserving capabilities.

So for now, we are stuck with learning to talk to each other. Which is something that we needed to do anyway.

No Scientist is an Island

Albert Einstein Memorial

Bronze statue of Albert Einstein at the National Academies building in Washington, DC. Photo by Nancy McGuire


The myth of the lone scientist working tirelessly into the night in his converted garage lab is compelling, but fictional (at least over the last 100 or so years), according to the panelists at How to Save America’s Knowledge Enterprise, a May 21 symposium sponsored by Future Tense (a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate magazine).

Take some of the iconic figures of science and technology: did they work alone?

  • Thomas Edison directed a research laboratory with as many as 200 researchers.
  • Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard worked out of a garage, but they were working under a fellowship from Stanford University, under the mentorship of Prof. Frederick Terman.
  • Albert Einstein was on the faculty at Princeton University.
  • The Manhattan Project is remembered in terms of a few of its most famous scientists, but at one point it employed roughly 130,000 people.
  • Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, benefited from knowledge he gained building mainframe computers at Hewlett Packard. He and co-founder Steve Jobs were members of the Homebrew Computer Club, a source of encouragement and inspiration.

My previous employer, High Performance Technologies Inc. (now a part of DRC) was the administrative partner in a consortium involving academics from Stanford University, Morgan State University, New Mexico State University, the University of Texas at El Paso, and the Army Research Laboratory. Army researchers drew on the academics’ expertise in high performance computing, and the academic researchers gained an opportunity to work on solutions to a set of real-world problems, with a defined group of end users.

Before that, I worked at the Office of Naval Research, which funds the Naval Research Laboratory. Even though the Navy has its own corporate laboratory, it still funds hundreds of research projects in academia and private industry. Why? Because the broader pool of expertise brings in novel solutions, and researchers working in academia and industry see problems from different angles than researchers in a government laboratory.

But that’s just applied science, you say. True, these projects tend to be very goal-focused. But even for purely basic or theoretical science, collaboration provides insights and ideas that transcend the limits of the lone scientist’s imagination. Not only that, but there is just no substitute for validating one’s theories against facts in the real world.

The panelists at Monday’s symposium agreed: research is not a solitary pursuit, but rather, an ecosystem — a densely linked network of scientists, engineers, and end users who constantly provide each other with feedback and new capabilities.