Domesticating Drones

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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. There are plans to let unmanned aircraft take flight for commercial purposes at home, 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. Such uses are a ways off, however, as regulators grind away at rules allowing the safe entry of drones into airways that accommodate 70,000 manned aircraft flights a day. In the meantime, however, the use of small drones has exploded, creating a danger to pilots and privacy alike.

The Situation

The growing disorder in the skies was underscored in November by a string of still-unexplained flights by small drones near nuclear plants in France and by a report that a drone almost collided with a passenger jet at Heathrow airport in July. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration released figures showing that close calls in which drones flew near airplanes or crowds had surged to more than 40 a month. Congress in 2012 gave the FAA the task of integrating commercial drone flights into the nation’s skies by 2015, and the agency says it will begin phasing in rules. While businesses are frustrated by that slow pace, the agency’s ability to police the skies is being increasingly tested by small unmanned helicopters and fixed-wing planes, which can be bought at hobby shops and online for less than $1,000 and require little training to fly. In the FAA’s first outline of its drone plans, it said it expects to require that small drones stay within sight of a human operator and fly in unpopulated areas only. That could prohibit the robotic operations of package-delivering drones being developed by Amazon and Google. Google and Facebook have also acquired drone companies in the hope of using unmanned vehicles to deliver the Internet to remote areas.

Source: Company fact sheets
Source: Company fact sheets

The Background

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. In most places, hobbyists flying small drones are expected to observe safety rules that include staying below a maximum height (90 meters in Canada) and staying away from airports. The FAA permits hobbyists who fly purely for recreation to use unmanned aircraft provided they follow recommended limits by groups such as the Academy of Model Aeronautics, which says they should be flown only in designated areas below 400 feet.

The Argument

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, the crash of a small drone in Manhattan that fell close to a pedestrian and those flights near nuclear plants in France, which some politicians blamed on radical German environmentalists.

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.

First Published Nov. 7, 2013

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Alan Levin in Washington at alevin24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:

John O'Neil at joneil18@bloomberg.net