September 1, 2013

Game of Drones

The new aerospace kid on the block

Kevin Good wants to be the camera operator on the next James Bond movie. He envisions the opening scene: a bird’s-eye view of the Mediterranean, with the camera sailing peacefully over the sun-dappled ocean accompanied by light-hearted music, slowly picking up tempo. Suddenly the camera swoops low toward a rocky shore. Cliffs, a sinuous road, a car. It’s Daniel Craig as James Bond, in his Aston Martin. There’s a wild car chase, with pursuers on Bond’s bumper, maybe a helicopter or two diving at him. He’s dodging and veering recklessly at 80 mph along the edge of a cliff as the camera skims above the scene, recording all the action.

“It’s the craziest action scene ever, all in one fluid take,” says Good, whose day job is as a producer of television commercials.

Sound dangerous? Not for the cameraman.

Good’s James Bond vision would not require him to hang off the bottom of an agile Eurocopter Ecureuil 350 (like the one used in “Skyfall,” the most recent James Bond movie). In fact, Good wouldn’t be in the air at all. Instead, he would be at a nearby ground station. The scene would be shot from a pilotless drone. All in all, safer (at least for the pilot and cameraman), cheaper and just as versatile as any camera-equipped helicopter, Good contends.

The Maryland video producer belongs to the DC Area Drone User Group, whose members share technological information, conduct “fly-ins” to practice with their own unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and wait impatiently for the drone revolution to reach the United States. Many of them are not hobbyists but would-be business operators. “We’re a few hundred entrepreneurs in waiting,” says Timothy Reuter, the group’s president, at a fly-in in a Maryland park as miniature whirlybirds hover overhead.

Talk to national user groups or drone manufacturers, and you get the feeling it’s only a matter of time before drones take over the world. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), an 8,000-member nonprofit group dedicated to promoting unmanned systems, has commissioned an economic-impact study by two aviation experts, showing significant economic benefits from the industry.

Industry Impact in the Billions

The impact of UAV integration into national airspace will add up to $13.6 billion in the first three years, say airline analyst Darryl Jenkins and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University economics professor Bijan Vasigh. The figure includes UAV sales, manufacturers’ supplies, workers’ salaries and states’ tax revenues. The industry should create more than 70,000 new jobs, many of them high-paying manufacturing jobs requiring baccalaureate degrees, they add.

Boeing's liquid hydrogent-powered Phantom Eye drone complete its second
 flight in February.

The two experts expect the economic impact between 2015 and 2025 to be more than $82 billion. They also caution the federal government: “Every year that integration is delayed, the United States loses more than $10 billion in potential economic impact,” they say.

Drones are already taking on many of the tasks that until recently required piloted aircraft: border surveillance, search-and-rescue operations, surveying, crop spraying, wedding photography and, most famously, eliminating notorious Al Qaeda or Taliban operatives with deadly Hellfire missiles. 

It’s happening, but only on a limited basis in the United States, where the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has put a lid on all private commercial UAV activities.

Non-governmental drone pilots like Good and his D.C. compatriots are limited to recreational uses, as federal regulators figure out how to integrate UAVs into the national airspace. The federal government has asked the FAA to come up with regulations for unmanned aircraft by September 30, 2015. In the meantime, the D.C. drone users have to abide by the same kind of restrictions that model airplane hobbyists live by.

“You can go out and buy your own quadrocopter [a handheld model with four rotary blades], put a GoPro on it [a popular brand of lightweight video cameras] and fly it around for your own pleasure, taking all the video you want—as long as you don’t sell the footage,” explains an FAA spokesman. “Once money changes hands, that’s prohibited.”

Canada already has a regulatory framework in place for commercial uses of UAVs. Operators of small drones (less than 35 kilograms) can charge for their services if they acquire Special Flight Operations Certificates from Transport Canada, the federal regulatory agency for transportation activities. As in Australia, New Zealand, the European Community and other nations that allow commercial drone activity, Canadian authorities bar the use of UAVs in aviation airspace or near crowds.

What’s in It for Metals?

While the emphasis of drone design is understandably on the lightweight, with fuselages composed of fiberglass and carbon fiber, the industry could still provide a bonanza for the metals industries. For example, the deadly Predator drone, which the American military has used in the Middle East, has a fuselage made of carbon and quartz fibers blended with Kevlar. But the unmanned aircraft, produced by the Southern California company General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, also uses copper wiring, aluminum ribs and wheels, and titanium wing edges. For the metals industry, drones are clearly nowhere near as important as the automobile or aeronautics industries, but they represent a foothold in a rapidly developing field.

So far, large defense contractors like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman dominate drone manufacturing. But private citizens’ intense interest in the technology has given manufacturers of lightweight UAVs, like Swiss company senseFly’s eBee and Atlanta, Georgia-based TechJect’s Dragonfly, a stake in the market, which should only get fatter once the FAA adopts UAV regulations.


Proposed uses for drones range from the ridiculous to the inspired. Fast-food companies have been speculating fervently about using drones to make home deliveries. While the much-hyped TacoCopter and Burrito Bomber have never been deployed, Domino’s Pizza in Great Britain launched an experimental fast-food delivery drone in June. According to the advertising company that carried out the experiment, Domino’s Pizza’s drone can deliver two large pizzas 4 miles in less than 10 minutes. Yet to be realized: the lifting power to add a 2-liter soda bottle to the payload. 

More seriously, a California company is experimenting with miniature remote-controlled helicopters to deliver medicines to places where roads are blocked because of natural disasters or to rural areas with limited overland access. The company, Matternet, in Palo Alto, California, has experimented in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, successfully delivering 2-kilo packages up to 6 miles.

Matternet envisions a global network of base stations and recharging stations. “The easiest way to describe what we are doing,” Matternet founder and CEO Andreas Raptopoulos told CNN recently, “is to compare how mobile telephony has taken off in the developing world.”

The World Wildlife Fund has begun using drones to monitor endangered species like elephants, tigers and rhinoceroses, the targets of poachers in some countries. Drones with thermal imaging can track poachers, who are active at night, and that information can be conveyed to rangers “so we can intercept the poachers,” Carter Roberts, president and CEO of the organization, said during a recent panel discussion at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is using drones to monitor storms, supplementing satellite information. “Some satellites only pass over a storm once a day, twice a day,” says Robbie Hood, director of NOAA’s unmanned aerial systems. “A [Global Hawk] system can go out and stay with the storm much longer.” The Global Hawk is a Northrop Grumman UAV, produced for the U.S. and German military, with a 36-hour in-flight endurance time.

Jenkins and Vasigh, the industry analysts, contend that the most promising markets for UAVs are precision agriculture, with drones equipped with sensors providing myriad crop information to farmers, and public safety.

Not Cops Yet

To be sure, UAVs have gained little acceptance among U.S. law-enforcement agencies. Last year, the FAA changed the application process to make it easier for first responders to acquire certificates of authorization to operate drones. Even with eased regulations, however, only 5% of this year’s applications were from civilian police departments (with most of them coming from either the Department of Defense or academic researchers), the FAA spokesman said.

According to the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA), a 3,500-member support group that encourages the use of aircraft in public safety, only a handful of police departments have drones. ALEA President Kurt Frisz could think of only two: the Miami-Dade Police Department in Florida and the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado.

The Florida agency, though it was the first to acquire a federal certificate, has yet to use UAVs in an incident. In largely rural Mesa County, however, police have used them since 2009 to photograph and create three-dimensional models of crime scenes, as well as to search for missing people.

Although the Colorado sheriff’s UAVs have so far not tracked down a missing camper or a fleeing fugitive, aerial program manager Benjamin Miller says, that’s only a matter of time. “We’ve been able to clear up to 10 square miles of ground in searches that ordinarily might involve boots on the ground,” he says. “Robots in the sky have just enabled us to do a more thorough job at a much faster pace.”

Before the department acquired drones, Miller adds, it used to spend about $10,000 a year to conduct a government-mandated aerial survey of a county landfill with a private airplane. “We now put up an unmanned robot that flies back and forth, taking a picture of the ground every three seconds,” Miller says. “When put together into an overall picture, we can determine the volume of the landfill up to 10 cubic decimeters. It costs us about $200.”

But most police departments view the rules for using UAVs as too restrictive, Frisz says. Under FAA regulations, cops can fly drones that weigh less than 5 pounds during daylight hours, away from populated areas, under 400 feet and in the sight of a pilot/operator.

“A lot of police chiefs would like to use them to monitor crowds,” Frisz says. But the federal restrictions reduce their potential for monitoring large, long-running events, like the Boston Marathon. In any case, no law-enforcement agencies can afford a $104 million Global Hawk, which can stay aloft for a day and a half. The systems they can afford—about $25,000 for a battery-operated drone in a box like a senseFly UAV from Switzerland—can hover for much shorter periods of time.

“Most of the pieces of equipment they can use can only fly for about 15 or 20 minutes,” Frisz says.

A Drone Backlash

In some communities, law enforcement faces a drone backlash from citizens who fear that UAVs with cameras are the first step toward “Big Brother in the sky.” A popular video posted last year on YouTube by an activist group in Texas shows men with rifles shooting at toy drones, along with rhetoric about threats to gun owners’ liberty. Another segment shows men from a Pennsylvania hunt club shooting down a drone flown by animal-rights activists, seeking to film a pigeon shoot.

After an outpouring of criticism this year, the Seattle Police Department returned two UAVs to their vendor. Police said their purpose in buying them was to assist in searching for missing persons and to aid in some criminal investigations. But at a public hearing last October, residents responded angrily to the drone program, chanting “No drones!”

Mesa County police say community acceptance of their drone program rests on its transparency. “Every now and then, we get a new community member come in and ask about it with the sheriff,” Miller told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The expectation is that “we’re hiding a Predator drone that we got from the military that’s armed with missiles,” Miller said.

Such sensitivities tend to disappear when drones are called upon to perform missions of mercy, as in, say, searching for lost children, says AUVSI President and CEO Michael Toscano. “People want the best possible technology to aid in finding them,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Wait a minute. You mean UAVs can keep going in darkness?’ Suddenly privacy concerns become less important.”

Not-So-New Eyes in the Skies

In fact, the technology that drones use is really nothing new, Toscano adds. Eye-in-the-sky surveillance devices, data-gathering sensors and computer-driven navigation instruments have been in use for years. The drone just delivers them in a smaller, more cost-effective package. “There’s no new leap-ahead technology there,” Toscano says. “Every sensor package that’s put on a UAV today already exists.”

In July, the Federal Aviation Administration certified Insitu's SanEagle  
(pictured) and AeroVironment's PUMA for civilian use.

When it comes to transportation, we already live in a drone-dominated world, says MIT aeronautics professor Mary Cummings. “If you’ve flown on an Airbus plane recently, you were actually flying on a UAV variant,” says Cummings, a former Navy fighter pilot currently developing unmanned helicopters.

Airbus passenger jets and some Boeings are so intensively computerized, she explains, that “the pilot is there just to babysit the aircraft.”

Cummings and others say it’s just a matter of time—perhaps 10 to 15 years—before computer-piloted aircraft deliver loads of FedEx packages, and maybe a decade or two after that when fighter planes fly pilotless. “Israel announced recently that, in 40 years, all of its fighters will be UAVs,” Cummings says.

For some, handing over the control of an aircraft to a computer sounds scary. What about computer glitches or crashes?

Cummings insists that computers, even with their occasional lapses, are more reliable than humans. “There’s something in the human body called neuromuscular lag,” she says. “You see something and it takes you a half second to react. That’s true of even the best pilot on the planet.” But it’s not true of computers.

“The computer never gets tired,” she says. “It always puts the bomb on the target it’s supposed to. It doesn’t make mistakes.”

Quadrocopters, Hexacopters and Octocopters

It’s getting late in the Maryland park where, one after the other, members of the D.C. user group launch their handheld quadrocopters, hexacopters and octocopters, with their four, six and eight rotor blades. Reuter has made a no-nonsense plea to keep the flying machines over an uninhabited open space, on the far side of the parking lot. “If you don’t do that, we’re going to have to ask you to leave,” he tells the group.

Suddenly a small craft, more than 100 feet in the air, veers backward. Its operator, controls in hand, follows it on the ground, furiously pushing buttons.

Reuter shouts a warning, and the man replies, “This isn’t on purpose.”

The miniature drone plunges downward, smashing against the asphalt parking lot, barely missing someone’s brand-new SUV. Reuter and others shake their heads. They’re familiar with the problem of this particular drone: faulty software.

There are apparently a few glitches to overcome before the arrival of the brave new future of unpiloted aerial vehicles.

Edmund Newton is a Washington, D.C.-based writer, formerly of the L.A. TimesNewsday and the New York Post, as well as the former managing editor of New Times-Broward Palm Beach. He has written for, among others, The New York TimesTimePeopleDaily News Sunday MagazineBlack EnterpriseLadies’ Home JournalEssence and Audubon.