Industries Technology

New role for drones

Virginia could become a testing area for civilian use

  •  | 
Print this page by Richard Foster

Earlier this year, the Internet was abuzz with stories about Tacocopter, a Silicon Valley startup that aimed to deliver tasty Mexican fare directly to hungry, customers via small, remote-controlled helicopters.

That idea never got off the ground, so to speak, but within the next decade people could be seeing a variety of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, in U.S. skies. They could perform tasks ranging from finding lost hikers to improving your cellphone reception or even writing you a speeding ticket.

Tacocopter turned out to be a hoax, but one of the MIT grads who came up with the idea hoped it would draw attention to the fact that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) currently bans commercial use of UAVs. Homeland Security uses drones to police the U.S. border, but only a small number of local law enforcement agencies and research universities so far have received limited FAA permission to fly small UAVs in civilian U.S. airspace.

Congress, however, has directed that the FAA develop guidelines to integrate UAVs into civilian airspace by Sept. 30, 2015. While the FAA still is working out what that will mean, the move eventually could open the skies to commercial applications for unmanned aircraft.

“There are a lot of different industries that are looking into unmanned technologies to see if they can augment their services and make them more efficient,” says Gretchen West, executive vice president of the Arlington-based Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Eventually UAVs could be used to monitor pipelines and power lines, for real estate mapping, to carry overnight packages or even to serve as flying cell-phone towers, she says, noting that such developments likely are several years away.

The FAA has announced it will designate six official UAV testing sites across the U.S. by the end of next year. The RFP (request for proposal) hasn’t been released yet,  but West believes the test sites will be used in advance of the 2015 deadline to develop and test “sense and avoid” technologies intended to prevent unmanned crafts in civilian airspace from colliding with manned aircraft or buildings.

More than 30 states, including Virginia, have expressed interest in hosting a UAV test site, but the Old Dominion may hold an advantage. Virginia and Maryland are submitting a joint application to create the Mid-Atlantic U.S. Test Range, which would include three facilities already approved to test UAVs for military purposes: the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility at Wallops Island and Naval Air Station Pax River in Patuxent River, Md.

There could be a “big potential” for economic development based around research and development contracts related to the UAV testing if Virginia and Maryland are successful, says Virginia Deputy Secretary of Technology Karen Jackson. “There’s the potential for spinoff activity around the bases.” The testing, she adds, would be for military applications. “It’s purely DOD [Department of Defense] oriented.” 

The public became aware of UAVs during the past 10 years largely as a result of drone strikes on terrorist targets in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles have been around since the Vietnam War.  (The UAV industry eschews the term “drone,” saying it doesn’t adequately describe today’s sophisticated, intelligent, GPS-equipped vehicles, which contain high-tech surveillance equipment and can maneuver better than most manned aircraft.)

In the near future, because of FAA restrictions and the technology’s cost, UAVs in the U.S. mostly will be utilized for surveillance in law enforcement, fire-fighting and rescue operations, West says. (Unlike their military counterparts, civilian law enforcement UAVs will not be equipped with weapons.)

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and the police chiefs of Washington, D.C., and Fairfax County support using drones for law enforcement. Those uses could include monitoring traffic, conducting surveillance in hostage situations and even writing speeding tickets.

The ACLU of Virginia and some state politicians, however, have concerns about using drones for law enforcement. West’s association has issued a voluntary code of conduct for UAV usage and believes that the same laws governing manned aircraft surveillance by law enforcement should govern drones. Nevertheless, Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of ACLU of Virginia, says that law enforcement UAVs should require different standards than manned aircraft. Surveillance drones used by civilian law enforcement are small (weighing from 6 to 55 pounds), quiet and can be hard to detect.

“When a helicopter is over your house, you know it’s over your house,” Gastañaga says, unlike the drones. The ACLU also is worried about police using drones to obtain photos and personal data without a warrant.
“The public historically has been a little timid about new technology — airplanes, fast cars, whatever, you know?” says Kevin Kochersberger, director of the Unmanned Systems Laboratory at Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering. “It’s human nature to be a little skeptical of technology, but there are many upsides to this technology that people aren’t seeing.”

During the last decade, Virginia Tech has received clearance to test a variety of small UAVs for the Department of Defense at Tech’s Kentland Farms experimental agriculture site, about eight miles away from the main campus in Blacksburg.  Kochersberger’s researchers worked on a $1 million-plus contract for the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency, adapting a 200-pound, 6-foot-long Yamaha RMAX unmanned helicopter to locate radiation sources or to survey damage and monitor radiation levels in U.S. cities after a nuclear weapon or dirty bomb attack.

Tech also is researching civilian applications for UAVs. For example, one professor has been using a UAV to collect airborne mold spores to study the spread of pathogens that can harm wheat crops. UAVs already are being used in Japan for targeted irrigation and crop dusting, and Virginia Tech is examining similar agricultural uses.

Search and rescue operations and law enforcement applications are other areas Tech is examining. A team of undergrad engineering students will travel to Australia this year to compete in the UAV Outback Search and Rescue Challenge. In this competition, teams build UAVs that can locate a dummy in a 50-square-mile search area and drop a payload of water bottles to the “lost hiker.”

UAVs are extremely valuable in disasters such as forest fires, Kochersberger says. While manned vehicles are restricted from flying over a forest fire at night, UAVs can fly surveillance missions over a forest fire for 24 hours in a row, collecting valuable data on changing burn patterns.

Military UAVs manufactured by Falls Church-based defense contractor Northrop Grumman already have assisted civilian rescue efforts. The Air Force has used Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk UAV to monitor forest fires on the West Coast and to survey damage from the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 2011 Japan tsunami.

New Mexico State University is testing drones to monitor power-line damage.

In law enforcement, UAVs can “look around buildings and investigate large areas that are hazardous without putting anybody in harm’s way,” Kochersberger says. “They do the dirty, dangerous jobs that nobody else wants to do.”

Says West: “Any time you’re putting a UAV into an environment that is potentially hazardous, you’re potentially saving a human life.” 

Managing Editor Paula C. Squires contributed to this report.

Reader Comments

comments powered by Disqus

showhide shortcuts