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.

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 a 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.

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 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 their 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 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 monitoring 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?

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