The flying robots known as drones patrol the skies above Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, blasting missiles at terrorists like the Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud. They kill civilians too — how many is unclear – provoking an international debate pitting their success at hunting U.S. enemies against the popular and diplomatic fury they incite. Now these unmanned aircraft are poised to take flight at home, where they’ll be spotting forest fires, monitoring criminal activity, protecting the U.S. from missiles, inspecting remote pipelines and perhaps one day replacing the Goodyear Blimp at sporting events. The biggest barrier so far has been a practical one: how to develop rules allowing their safe entry into airways that accommodate 70,000 manned aircraft flights a day.
The Federal Aviation Administration is due in November to deliver rules allowing small drones to operate commercially. Congress has ordered the FAA to begin integrating unmanned aircraft into the skies by 2015. In the meantime, it has been struggling to restrict the use of drones that can be bought online or in hobby shops. In March, an administrative law judge overturned the first fine the FAA had ever levied against a drone operator, ruling it had no authority over small unmanned aircraft; the agency is still seeking to enforce the restrictions while it appeals. Lobbyists representing interests from filmmakers to farmers have piled into the fray, hoping to sway the FAA or lawmakers to open up the field. But in the FAA’s first outline of its drone plans, it said it expects to require that small drones have a human operator or “pilot,” stay within sight of the pilot and fly in unpopulated areas only. That could prohibit the robotic operations of package-delivering “octocopters” envisioned by Jeff Bezos, Amazon‘s founder. Other tech companies exploring the field include Google and Facebook, who have acquired drone companies in the hope of using unmanned vehicles to deliver the Internet to remote areas.
Domestic drones can be traced back to the 1917 Kettering Aerial Torpedo, known as the “Bug,” which was meant to fly in a straight line until a timer cut the engine, dropping the plane and its bomb wherever it happened to be. Germany’s V-1 rocket worked much the same way, with better navigation. Recent advances in technology, communications and global positioning have given them far greater capabilities. Military drones can linger over terrorist dens in Afghanistan for hours at a time and launch missiles — all while under the command of a “pilot” halfway around the world. It’s one thing to fly a drone in the empty skies of a remote war zone and quite another in the airways over the U.S., with its dense mix of private planes, helicopters and airliners. While the U.S. has the most drone production, other countries have moved faster to approve their use for commercial purposes, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International: Australia, France, Sweden and Japan have allowed at least some drone flights for hire.
Supporters say that the benefits of civilian drones will ensure their adoption. Yet the use of drones to target terrorists and monitor traffic at the Mexican-U.S. border has also spurred fears that they will be used to spy on American citizens: The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation say the growing use of the technology has the potential to violate privacy rights. A lawsuit by the EFF revealed that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection had loaned Predator drones to other federal departments for more than 500 flights over domestic soil in a three-year period. Eight states have enacted laws regulating the use of drones within their borders. Still unresolved are highly technical questions concerning the reliability of robotic devices and those who control them, and how to avoid midair collisions. The University of North Dakota, NASA and nonprofit research group Mitre Corp. are testing drone computer systems that detect and avoid other aircraft. One big problem: Thousands of smaller planes don’t carry the radio transponders that would make them “visible” to more intelligent drones. The dangers were underscored by a reported near-miss between an airliner and a drone and the crash of a small drone in Manhattan that fell close to a pedestrian.
The Reference Shelf
- FAA “road map” on its plans to develop drone rules.
- A report prepared for the U.S. Air Force has projections on the rise in drone use, as does this study by the Teal consulting group.
- U.S. Congressional Research Service 2012 report on domestic drone use.
- Government Accountability Office 2012 testimony and 2008 report on integrating drones into domestic airspace.
- Defense Authorization Act and FAA Reauthorization Act containing requirements for integrating drones into the domestic airspace.
- The New America Foundation’s analysis of drone strikes and civilian casualties in Pakistan and Yemen.