The Virtuous Drone

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Take out the politics and emotion, and it becomes clear that with reasonable controls and policies, UAVs contribute to the net well-being of society – or they will if we allow it.

By Ives Brant


Drones are coming to the sky near you. If this conjures up an image of a Predator UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) armed with missiles, you might think instead of the video cameras at your local shopping outlets. Now, add a propeller and motor to create a highly mobile eye. This is a more accurate rendition of the commercial and government drones that you will soon see overhead. Except in extreme law enforcement situations, do not expect to hear about UAVs firing upon targets within friendly borders.

UAVs have certainly triggered an emotional response from privacy zealots and civil liberterians in the United States, and this has made good news footage: clips of anxious citizens and academics using worrisome terms such as “Big Brother” and “invasion of privacy.” It’s true that with facial recognition technology, UAVs can help identify exactly who is walking down a street in any city. On the other hand, so can stationary cameras, as they long have in London and other UK cities.

As for tracking specific individuals, no doubt the courts will ultimately decide if UAVs can follow known pedophiles or suspected terrorists everywhere they go.

Not so threatening: flying pizza

Against this backdrop, Dominos Pizza in the UK recently posted a popular video of its pizza-delivery drone on YouTube, showing an unmanned multi-prop copter in a much friendlier role.

Perhaps the most realistic concern about a sizable UAV population: more crowded skies, and how to safely control a large amount of low-flying “three-dimensional traffic” above our heads. Drone operators are supposed to have pilot certificates plus UAV-specific training, but safety and quality controls will be more difficult to enforce in the private sector, so there will probably be accidents caused by operator errors. On the other hand, most commercial UAVs applications are likely to operate over sparsely populated areas.

Congress directed the Federal Aviation Administration to make it safe for UAVs to fly domestically by 2015.  Still, whether pizza-delivery UAVs will flourish is debatable. Within four years, the FAA expects some 10,000 commercial drones (think news outlets, agriculture, facility security, and private businesses) to fly by 2017. All 18,000 state and local law-enforcement agencies will be potential customers.

Clearly, UAVs must be regulated in the same way as cargo aircraft; this will reduce safety concerns and professionalize pilot behavior so there are few spurious surveillance flights over sunbathers in their back yards.

The current hot debate over whether UAV surveillance is somehow more sinister than other forms of surveillance will likely calm down as drones become perceived as one more helpful law enforcement tool, like wiretaps and cell-phone location-tracking.

A more likely scenario for misuse of UAVs: hackers seizing the controls. The industry must build in secure operator-to-UAV communication.  You don’t want misguided teenagers or terrorists commandeering control of UAVs for nefarious purposes.

Pros and cons

Putting aside paranoia and politics, the benefits of domestic UAV usage are likely to far outweigh the downside of predicted incidents of misuse and the risk of accidents.

When UAVs are deployed in search and rescue missions, public opinion becomes more accepting. Hazardous and emergency response situations are also inevitable and beneficial applications. There’s a strong “eco-green” argument for UAVs as well, and it includes, for example, the University of Alaska using the quiet aircraft to study sea lions in the wild.

Reduced pesticide usage is another anticipated environmental benefit. We’ll cover this in a future posting, but corporate farming has depersonalized the farmer’s connection to large plots of land, resulting in what some call a “sledgehammer” approach to pesticides. Farmer Drone, however, will gain enhanced ability to inspect the conditions of remote parcels under cultivation and make more precise decisions about where pesticides are needed.

Two 30-lb. aircraft versus five 4,000-pound vehicles and 200-pound driver

The largest quantifiable environmental benefit from UAVs, however, will be straightforward reduction of carbon footprint. What’s better for global warming (and budgets): sending five highly paid, armed officers in five large, internal-combustion vehicles to patrol 50 miles of border, or using instead two 30-pound drones that will probably get the job done more effectively? A human in an SUV creates more pollution than a small drone. The driver alone outweighs outweighs the drone by 500%.

Commercial uses of UAVs include plant security, monitoring of infrastructure – particularly tall and remote infrastructure – for safety defects and maintenance, and pipeline or rail inspection. As mentioned, agriculture is also an area where the UAV shows potential to fulfill requirements effectively while reducing costs.

UAVs outfitted with air quality sensors and secure communications provide excellent environmental monitoring capabilities.

Such real-time on-scene data can be made available before and during emergencies for better crisis management and response.

Wherever choppers are used today to gather traffic flow information, to inspect oil and gas pipelines, or spot housing code violations–UAVs can enable a more cost effective approach if such programs are administered and run properly.

The industrial applications of good drones are likely to sweep away all serious objections. In future articles, we will delve into how these will work, how they’ll be controlled and regulated, and how the data they collect will be exploited.

Ives Brant, former editor-in-chief of Tornado Insider, writes frequently on IT topics and provides marketing communications services to companies from startups to industrial

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