UAS: Just the Beginning
Eight arms spanning less than a yard, a German MikroKopter provides a stable camera platform, for less than $5,000.
Photo by Joe McNally for March 2013 National Geographic.
By Rachel Duran
Unmanned systems technology is quickly moving from military to civil and commercial applications, spurring economic development, job creation, and STEM education initiatives. In 2012, the Teal Group Corp., stated the global market for remotely piloted aircraft will nearly double during the next decade, increasing from $6.6 billion to $11.4 billion. If operations and maintenance expenditures are added, the totals will be greater.
The dominant public perception of unmanned systems has to do with military aircraft applications, such as drones; however, unmanned systems also include applications for ground, maritime, space and medical activities. “There are a lot of domains unmanned systems are migrating to,” says Michael Toscano, president and CEO, Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
AUVSI’s membership consists of 7,000 individuals from 2,100 organizations, located in 55 countries. Members hail from government, industry and academia.
The overwhelming benefit of unmanned systems is the ability to gather information in order to provide situational awareness. In-depth information in chaotic situations, such as natural disasters, leads to smarter and more efficient decision making. With revolutionary technology, with uses ranging from precision agriculture to search and rescue to border patrol, come challenges, such as privacy concerns.
Toscano likens the situation to the early days of the Internet, such as the role the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), back then known as ARPA, played in linking computers into a national communications system. At that time, people would have never considered conducting their banking online, ordering goods and services online, and storing their business and personal data in the cloud. “Those privacy issues and concerns in regard to UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] are no different than with the early days of the Internet,” Toscano says.
He concedes that as with any technology with untold applications, there is the ability for someone to use the technology in not so good ways. He counters that laws are already in place to deal with invasion of privacy issues.
The content listed below is excerpted from an interview conducted with Toscano in early March. He continues with privacy concerns.
Toscano: Right now we are getting wrapped around the axle with privacy, which will be resolved. There are already privacy laws on the books. The Fourth Amendment [unreasonable search and seizures] has been around for nearly 225 years and survived the different technologies such as cameras, computers, cell phones, thermal imaging, infrared, and so forth. Every time we get a new technology, it invades privacy.
There are laws that say you can’t look through my window. It doesn’t outline how you look through, whether it is with binoculars or a telescope — the law says you can’t do it. If you violate my privacy, you are held accountable.
Global Corporate Xpansion: Privacy issues aside, let’s discuss air access. One of the AUSVI’s advocacy items focuses on achieving airspace access.
Toscano: Getting into the national air space is key and critical. When you look at what unmanned systems bring to the table you have to realize there is a whole family of systems. Larger planes have particular missions. For example, Northrup Grumman’s unmanned Global Hawk can fly at an altitude of 60,000 feet for more than 32 hours. Recently, we have started to get to the midsize and lower-end type systems.
In February, the FAA released a Screening Information Request, which commenced the selection process for six UAS test sites, as required by the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. I think what you are going to see is a crawl, walk, run situation, just like with any emerging technology.
The FAA will approve these six sites by the end of the year to develop and test UAS. Currently, the only FAA approved site for the industry is located at New Mexico State University. There isn’t anything magical about the number six. Any state could develop its own site; however, they will need to be approved by the FAA and that may take more time to do because there isn’t money from the FAA. Funding will be done by the states.
GCX: Highlight the expansion opportunities in the unmanned systems sector.
Toscano: There are a plethora of applications. One that we know will be huge is precision agriculture. Benefits include being able to assess the crops, which gives you situational awareness. Farmers need to know what the water content in the ground is, and where the pest problems are in the crops. It may be that you only have insects in one corner of a field, so you won’t have to spray the entire field. By knowing where the insects are you eliminate the problem faster, don’t waste the pesticides, and do it in a more efficient manner — precision agriculture.
Additionally, you do not have to buy as much pesticide, which saves money. You also cut down on ground water contamination.
In the last 20 years, Japan has moved to 90 percent spraying with unmanned systems. That doesn’t mean they don’t spray with manned systems; but it is more cost effective, is safer and saves money.
Other uses of unmanned systems include managing disasters, such as surveying power lines, and conducting aerial imaging and mapping. UAS can also be flown in and land so that sensors can detect gas leaks, for instance. You can articulate the situation because you can see it.
In search and rescue situations, UAS can eliminate the number of places that need to be searched. For example, in a search of 100 acres, with half covered by woods and half an open field, by flying the UAS over the open field, you can determine if the person is there. You have eliminated half the places you need to look, allowing you to use ground forces more efficiently. Search and rescue folks say the first 24 hours are critical.
GCX: What is the outlook for the unmanned systems community in 2013?
Toscano: There is tremendous potential in education, for example with STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] initiatives.
There are robotic competitions held in middle schools, high schools, and at the college level. The competitions are a great way of helping our educational system, especially in math and the sciences.
If you look at the evolution of technology, and look at the models of technology that have come forward, this is what you are facing with regard to unmanned systems in general. The next 20 years are going to be unbelievable in regard to the technology advancements we will see.
For more details on unmanned systems, visit the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International at www.auvsi.org.