New Ways to Use Drones

  • By Jason Margolis
  • Posted 01.31.13
  • NOVA

Thousands of drones could be in commercial use in the U.S. within a few years. These unmanned aerial vehicles may assist everyone from farmers and firefighters to doctors and utility workers. But the government has not yet decided how to regulate this coming fleet of civilian drones.

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Although pioneered by the military, unmanned aircraft could soon become a common part of civilian life.

Here is one sign of the huge potential of drones: The University of North Dakota recently began offering an undergraduate major in unmanned aircraft systems operations.

For now, most graduates end up in jobs that support the military, but program head Ben Trapnell predicts that civilian uses will eventually far outpace those for defense.

An unmanned plane could fly over a field and send back pictures to show where pests are located or where crops need irrigation.

"Some of the big things [are] agricultural uses," said Trapnell. "We can get imagery to farmers a lot faster than having to wait for satellites to do the same thing." For instance, an unmanned plane could fly over a field and send back pictures to show where pests are located or where crops need irrigation.

Trapnell also foresees medical applications. "There's the possibility of flying organs from one place to another to get them there faster for transplants," he said. Drones may also be used to parachute medical supplies in remote locations, where planes can't land.

Utility companies could benefit from drones. Trapnell predicts they will one day patrol pipelines and power lines to monitor for problems. Small helicopter drones may fly close to wind turbines to make video inspections.

Shrinking Drones

Drones used by the military tend to be large—they are essentially airplanes without pilots—but those being built for civilian purposes are often much smaller. One company helping to develop this new breed of drones is Appareo Systems of Fargo, North Dakota.

Appareo Vice President Jeff Johnson held up a device his company makes that helps unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) avoid obstacles like building and other airplanes.

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Jeff Johnson, vice president of Appareo Systems, holds a GPS system his company makes for UAVs. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

"That little black box you're seeing there is the device we made for the Office of Naval Research," he said. The device is a cube small enough to hold in the palm of your hand. "As small as that is, it's too big," he added.

The cube needs to be smaller because unmanned planes of the future will be very small. Johnson explained that a drone small enough to be portable could be helpful in many circumstances, such as fighting a forest fire.

"One of the applications we've been asked about is to have a person being able to carry a UAV on their back that they assemble and can send through a smoke plume to see what's on the other side."

Regulating Unmanned Planes

The Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates civil aviation the United States, is proceeding cautiously with these new types of aircraft. For now, the FAA has banned most uses of UAVs while it assesses the risks these devices pose and determines how they can be used safely.

The agency has authorized UAVs for some important missions deemed "in the public interest," such as disaster relief and law enforcement. Still, the FAA prohibits the flying of UAVs over densely populated areas.

"The [drone] comes out of a small case or backpack, about the size of carry-on luggage. So the system can be deployed anywhere and carried by a single user."

Canadian authorities are moving ahead more quickly with commercial drones. In Canada, you can get a permit to fly a UAV in a matter of weeks, although the government will not allow drones to fly higher than 400 feet.

One Canadian company that sells drones for civilian purposes is Aeryon Labs, in Waterloo, Ontario. It makes a small quadcopter (a helicopter with four rotors) called the Scout.

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The Scout is an unmanned aerial system designed by the Canadian company Aeryon Labs. It weighs three pounds, is equipped with a camera, and can stay airborne for 25 minutes. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Aeryon Labs

"The system comes out of a small case or backpack, about the size of carry-on luggage," said company vice president Ian McDonald. "So the system can be deployed anywhere and carried by a single user."

While in the sky, cameras can record both still and moving images.

McDonald said in the past three years, his company has sold the Scout to military and commercial customers on every continent except Antarctica.

"A customer in South Korea used the system as part of security planning and response for the 2012 nuclear summit," said McDonald. That summit attracted more than 50 world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama.

McDonald said there are a few key advantages to a device like the Scout: It is cheaper and safer than hiring a pilot to fly a plane or helicopter, and it flies lower to capture higher resolution images.

Despite their small size, these planes could become big business.

Worldwide sales of UAVs already top $7 billion, according to industry estimates. Experts say that figure could more than double within a decade, as UAVs move broadly into civilian life.

Learn what it's like to pilot drones and check out more global science stories from PRI's "The World."

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