In the summer of 2008, when wildfires raged through northern California, the Air Force, the Navy and NASA all offered to put Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) into the air to track the fires’ spread and help plan evacuations.
But in the end, instead of filling the sky with drones to brave the flames and relay data, the military and NASA were able to deploy only one UAV at a time.
UAVs – airborne vehicles that are directed remotely or through preprogrammed instructions, with no on-board pilots – have long been used in the military. Since their pilots can be thousands of miles away, UAVs can patrol hostile terrain without risking human lives. And because they don’t need to carry pilots, UAVs can be smaller than traditional aircraft – sometimes downright tiny – which allows them to navigate tighter spaces and stay aloft with less fuel than manned aircraft. Yet despite these benefits, their adoption for civilian use has been excruciatingly slow.
The primary obstacle has been UAVs’ still-limited capacity to detect and avoid other aircraft and objects. Remote pilots must rely on on-board sensors, which often give limited information and which can potentially malfunction. Because of this, the Federal Aviation Administration severely restricts the use of UAVs in domestic airspace. Public agencies wishing to operate UAVs inside the United States must apply for permission and are generally required to have ground observers or piloted aircraft in visual contact with a UAV whenever it is in space that is open to other air traffic.
Obviously, safety is the most important concern, but the costs of delaying the widespread use of UAVs are likely to be ultimately higher than the risks of using them.
Just this month, in Westchester County, N.Y., a month-long search for an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s, who had seemingly vanished without a trace, ended when her body was found in the woods less than half a mile from her home. The area had already been checked by police officers and dogs.
In a similar situation on the other side of the country, an 8-year-old autistic boy spent more than 24 hours missing in the San Bernardino National Forest after he ran away from his elementary school. That story has a happier ending. The boy was found unharmed, but not until after he had endured a night of hard rains, lightning and cold weather.
If police had had access to UAVs with thermal imaging equipment, there is a chance that they might have been able to locate these two individuals faster.
The possible uses for UAVs in civilian life are almost endless. They could watch over lonely spans of coastline and desert, where smugglers and human traffickers now move with relative freedom. They could monitor urban traffic and flash flooding. They could watch for unauthorized intrusions near reservoirs, power plants and other sensitive sites. They could patrol remote stretches of highway for stranded motorists who might be in distress.
Of course, for some, the idea of eyes in the sky brings anything but comfort. The same qualities that make UAVs well-suited to so many public safety missions also make them the stuff of privacy advocates’ nightmares. Recently, Texas law enforcement officers used a Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) to conduct an aerial sweep of a suspect’s property, leading to a wave of questions about how the technology might expand the reach of the police. A great deal of talk has also been devoted to speculation that the 2012 Olympic Games in London will be monitored by security drones.
For some, the thought of drones buzzing through stadiums may conjure images from dystopian fiction. It is important to remember, however, that our personal freedom is a product of our laws and attitudes regarding civil liberties, not our access or lack of access to technology. So long as drone-led searches are subject to the same restrictions as those carried out by human beings, the advent of UAVs in civilian life alone will not carry us into an age of Big Brother-like surveillance.
Flying drones will save lives and property. We ought to make the effort to get them into the air as soon as we can.