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How will thousands of drones impact already crowded skies?

December 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Drone aircraft might be delivering Amazon orders to your door soon says Jeff Bezos But first states and the federal government are wrestling with the implications of many new, pilotless aircraft -- how they might affect civil liberties -- and how to keep them out of the way of manned aircraft in skies that are already crowded.
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RICK KARR:  The future of aviation could be an aircraft light enough to be carried by a grad student, rugged enough to take off from a grassy field, and flexible enough to do just about anything in the air. Not firing missiles — this one’s designed to chase storms in Tornado Alley. But it could just as easily search for someone who’s missing  … relay communications in an emergency … monitor a pipeline for leaks … maybe even deliver packages.

BRIAN ARGROW: You want to do this mission?  Put in this set of sensors. You want to do this next mission?  Put in another set of sensors and communications capabilities and so forth.

RICK KARR:  Put the right equipment on board, and drones could be useful to lots of different industries and government sectors — so useful that sales of the pilotless aircraft might just … take off. Within a couple hours’ drive of this field near Boulder, Colorado startups — and established aviation companies — are gearing up to meet that expected demand. The manufacturers are part of a statewide effort to convince the Federal Aviation Administration to put of the six drone testing sites it’s about to announce in Colorado. If the state has an edge over the twenty-three others in the running, it may be this man. Brian Argrow is a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. He’s been studying drones for nearly twenty years … and he taught some of the engineers who develop new drone technology here.

BRIAN ARGROW: The idea that you’re going to sit at a console with a joy stick in your hand, with a video feed coming from cameras on the aircraft and you’re going to be flying’ that around in the air.  No. That’s technology from the ’80s and ’90s. It’s a new century.  And autonomy. That will be the– that will be the future.

RICK KARR: So, essent– essentially what we’re talking’ about is a flying robot, then, in a sense.

BRIAN ARGROW: It’s already a flying robot.

RICK KARR:  People who build these flying robots … would prefer that the public — and reporters — not call them drones. One of the terms they prefer is “U-A-S” — for Unmanned Aircraft Systems — and the “unmanned” part … is another big selling point.

BRIAN ARGROW: A U.A.S. can– doesn’t care that– if a pilot’s tired or whatever.  It’ll sit there until it– you either tell it to come home or it runs, you know, low on fuel or whatever.

RICK KARR: A UAS also doesn’t earn a pilot’s salary. And most use less fuel than manned aircraft. Bottom line, they’re cheaper to fly — so much cheaper that businesses that today can only dream about using manned aircraft … could end up flying their very own drones. For example, architects and real estate developers might want their own so they could have them fly over buildings and scan them so that they could create 3-D models of the buildings … and the surrounding neighborhood. Argrow thinks U.A.S’s “killer app” will be in agriculture. The founder of a startup in a Denver suburb is betting on that.

ALLEN BISHOP:  I think it’s going to be just a windfall of opportunity

RICK KARR:  Allen Bishop’s firm Reference Technologies builds drones that take off, hover, and land like helicopters. He thinks they’ll be as common on farms as tractors and pickup trucks.

ALLEN BISHOP:  Corn, wheat, there’s all types of diseases that infect those plants. Historically they would call up the local sprayer and he’ll spray the entire field. With this technology – you send this unit out and it can determine the segment of the field that’s infested and that’s the only part that needs to be sprayed.

RICK KARR:  That would save money for farmers … and could mean less residue from chemicals that treat agricultural diseases in the food on your dinner table. Some of Bishop’s drones look like the four-rotor ‘copters you might see hobbyists piloting by remote. But these are flying robots that pilot themselves.

ALLEN BISHOP:  Our big unit. can take off from this parking lot, and land on the pitcher’s mound at Coors Field. With hands off.

RICK KARR:  Wow. Wow. You just program — you just program the GPS?

ALLEN BISHOP:  You use the GPS maps and you go click, click, click — the waypoints. You look for any obstructions along the way. And about 30 minutes later, it’s on the pitcher’s mound at Coors field.

RICK KARR:  Hopefully not during a …

ALLEN BISHOP:  We wouldn’t do it during a game.

RICK KARR:  That model can stay in the air for five hours with twenty pounds of equipment on board. Right now, there are over hundred drones flying in the U.S. Five years from now, the Federal Aviation Administration projects there’ll be about seventy-five-hundred. By 2025, an industry group expects tens of thousands. Bishop is even more optimistic.

KARR to BISHOP: How many drones do you think will be commercially in the air in the US in 10 years?

ALLEN BISHOP:  In 10 years, hundred thousand plus. a hundred thousand – easily.

RICK KARR:  But right now, FAA rules make it next to impossible for farmers, corporations — pretty much any part of the private sector — to get the permits that are necessary to FLY them. Even Bishop doesn’t have a permit, so he doesn’t fly his drones — to a baseball stadium or anyplace else — unless they’re tethered to the ground with fishing line. If the FAA were to make it easier for the private sector to buy and fly UASs, a trade group estimates that Colorado’s drone industry would do twenty million dollars worth of business in first year alone, then grow exponentially. But efforts to boost the industry have been flying into a stiff headwind.

With thousands of these birds in the air in a few years there are some concerns: first, that these might run into conflicts with existing manned aircraft. Secondly, a lot of these birds in the air … are also eyes in the sky.

RICK KARR to MAES: When you first learned that Colorado was pushing to become a testing site for drones.

DENISE MAES: Sure—

RICK KARR: What was your first reaction?

DENISE MAES: Well, in some ways it was, whoa, wait a minute, right.  We– don’t have, in my mind, what the privacy rules should be in place before we talk about any sort of escalation, the– including the– drones up in the air.  We haven’t laid the appropriate groundwork for them.

Denise Maes is with the ACLU of Colorado. She says firefighters and law enforcement have legitimate reasons to use drones — like search and rescue operations. But she worries those same eyes in the skies will end up being used for what she thinks are less-than-legitimate purposes.

RICK KARR:  If you have a drone that’s being launched for the purpose of finding a hot spot in a fire, and en route it gathers private information about private citizens on their private property and retains that data, and then later wants to use it in a criminal proceeding or– that’s the problem.

RICK KARR to MAES: So it sounds like, really, this is one of those slippery-slope arguments, in a way.  Once you put drones in the hands of law enforcement, they’re just going to kind of keep expanding the way that they use them.

DENISE MAES: That’s certainly what– we fear.  And I think– the rush to– get the permits, get the technology going, launch them, and we’ll fix them as they come up is not– is not good policy-making.

RICK KARR:  The Air Line Pilots Association also wants drones to remain grounded while regulators develop rules for them. The union wants Federal Aviation Administration to make sure UASs don’t compromise the safety of nearly a quarter million manned aircraft in the country.

SEAN CASSIDY:  I think the way that they’re going to do this effectively is to do it very methodically, not to suddenly, completely, clobber the integrated airspace with an abundance of UAVs

RICK KARR:  Sean Cassidy is a union vice president and a former Navy pilot who captains passenger jets. His union wants every unmanned aircraft to have a human being at a set of remote controls every time one takes to the skies, even if it’s capable of flying itself.

SEAN CASSIDY: Somebody physically onboard the airplane or physically on the ground flying that airplane has to have an understanding of the performance characteristics of that vessel, they have to understand what the consequences are if they misuse it. You can’t just walk off the street just like some kid flying a game machine.

RICK KARR:  Cassidy says the good news is that the FAA’s plan for bringing drones into the nation’s airspace proposes some kind of pilot certification.  It also requires high-tech safety systems for drones that can sense — and avoid — collisions … keep the radio link with the control station secure from malicious hackers or terrorists … and more. But the bad news, he says, is that Congress ordered the FAA to let more drones start flying by September of 2015, and he thinks that may be too soon.

RICK KARR:  What’s a reasonable timeline for this?

SEAN CASSIDY: I think the reasonable timeline is the one that’s the safe timeline, I don’t think the technical and safety work that’s required is going to be accomplished by then

RICK KARR:  Colorado drone entrepreneur Allen Bishop says he’s sympathetic to the professional pilots’ concerns because he’s a private pilot. But he’s not sympathetic to fears that drones will invade the public’s privacy, because there are already devices that can do that — the public just doesn’t think about them.

ALLEN BISHOP:  We’re not going to make apple take the camera out of their iPhones – not going to happen. We have initial negative things about things we don’t understand or things we can’t control and drones or UAS clearly fall into that category. They’re high tech devices. They have extraordinary capability – they fly.

RICK KARR:  More than anything, Allen Bishop just wants to be allowed to let his drones off of their leashes … so they prove to everyone that they’re as useful as he thinks they’ll turn out to be. Aerospace engineering professor Brian Argrow can already do that — the FAA rules that keep Bishop’s UASs on leashes don’t apply to researchers at state universities, so Argrow’s team has been flying them for years. He understands the frustration with the slow process of getting them off the ground. But drones present complex problems, so he’s not sure he’d advise regulators at the FAA to move any faster.

BRIAN ARGROW:  What’s the alternative?  You know, everybody– a free for all where everybody goes out and flies these things and you start bringing’ down manned aircraft

RICK KARR:   Argrow sees drones being a big part of future of aviation, maybe even as big as Allen Bishop and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos are predicting. He just thinks it’ll take a little longer before they’re cleared for takeoff.