Today, I participated in a lunch time discussion after our Skeptical 101 Special Interest Group which is a FreeThought Arizona program. The program went well enough but the lunch time discussion didn’t. The discussion started about the proposed use of “drones” to deliver packages. It started with a concern that Amazon’s plan to use “drones” was going to cost people jobs. First, I told him that the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle industry opposes calling the aircraft “drones.” It’s an old concern but drones were made to be targets. Also, male honey bees are called drones. They cannot sting, and they make no honey and are often considered lazy critters. Most UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) are not targets. They are sophisticated, capable systems that are designed around a very specific mission. To be fair, it’s a losing battle to convince people not to use the “D” word when describing UAVs. “Drone” is a fun word and sounds cool. However, that’s not where the discussion ended. It is unlikely that we’ll be receiving UAV deliveries anytime soon. Back in February of 2007 the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) severely curtailed any commercial use of UAVs. Today, there are only a few licensed operator companies and they are primarily associated with the military. The latest prediction for UAV integration into the FAA airspace won’t occur until 2015. People are struggling with the current FAA restrictions as seen in the movie Civilian Drones Search and Rescue. Ultimately, the discussion turned to how UAVs are evil and that I was immoral for my work in developing the technology.
Obviously, being called immoral for my work on Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems was not well received but perhaps it comes from ignorance of UAVs and their missions. Aside from Amazon’s proposal the only coverage of UAVs in the news has been about air strikes in Pakistan and collateral damage. Therefore, it might be useful to discuss some of the other missions of UAV systems.
UAVs have been around for almost as long as there have been manned planes and since the beginning they’ve been doing the missions that were considered too “dull, dirty, or dangerous” for manned aircraft. The earliest examples flew uncontrolled and were “drones” in the real sense—they were targets. The first RPV (Remotely Piloted Vehicle) was developed by Reginald Denny, a movie star and model airplane enthusiast. Besides producing radio controlled aircraft for the U.S. Navy, the Radioplane Company of Van Nuys also produced a famous actress Norma Jean who became Marilyn Monroe. But now there are many producers and many missions so I’ll skip the detailed history and move on to current uses.
- Some are used for lethal strike. The Predators are constantly in the news but they are but a small fraction of the working systems.
- Some systems are used for research. My master’s thesis involved a small URV (Unmanned Research Vehicle ) that was routinely used by the Wright Laboratories Flight Dynamic Center to test new concepts in advanced flight controls.
- Some systems are used for education. For over 20 years, I’ve judged and supported a collegiate contest that pits teams of student engineers to accomplish a mission using autonomous aerial vehicle systems. I’m currently a mentor for a high school competition called the Real World Design Challenge which has the students design a UAV system for monitoring the invasion of a corn parasite.
- Some systems are used for non-lethal military systems. I was the payload integrator for the Global Hawk UAV that was developed by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and is currently deployed to take photo and radar reconnaissance photographs from high altitude over areas of interest to the national defense. This reduces the need for manned U-2 flights—a VERY “dull and dangerous” mission as evidenced by the 1960 U-2 incident. The Predator drones were also developed by to perform long endurance reconnaissance missions and many are still used for that mission.
- Some systems are used for search and rescue. While the FAA is currently limiting what can be done in this area, there are still efforts to save lives and assist first responders.
- And yes! Some are used as targets to test new systems and simulate combat conditions for training pilots. Every once in a while one of the F-16s parked in the Davis-Monthan AMARG (Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group—the Bone-Yard) flies off to Eglin to be converted and become part of the QF-16 fleet stationed there.
And don’t forget the future applications:
- Unmanned Package Delivery. Forget about Amazon. A better application would be the rapid delivery of transplant organs.
- Weather Observation. This is sort of cheating since many of our weather devices ride on unmanned vehicles such as weather balloons and dropsondes but these devices go where they want. An unmanned system can be made to follow a developing weather condition to provide better predictions than currently available without sending in the manned systems.
- Virtual Tourism.
- 3D Mapping.
- Wildlife Management. Just recently, 31 big horn sheep were released and were tracked using GPS collars. Three didn’t make it. A UAV system could be used to monitor the re-population effort and locate the predators if necessary. UAVs are currently being used to monitor an Orangutan conservation effort in Borneo.
- Farm Applications.
I should thank the individual that called me immoral for devoting such a large part of my life toward the development of unmanned systems. It surely gave me something to write about. I hope you get a chance to look as some of the links provided and understand that UAVs are here and doing some rather surprising missions from search and rescue to research and education.