From War to Work: Civilian Drones in the United States

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There’s been a lot of buzz about drones lately, especially in the past couple of years. Every day it gets harder to avoid them, whether they’re trending on the Internet or zooming by your window; everybody and their grandmother seems to be getting their own pet drone nowadays. But this rapidly growing market has prompted widespread discussion, namely surrounding ethics, legality, and the scope of their use. After all, drones weren’t always about fun and games.

Yes, much like microwaves, GPS, penicillin, passenger/commercial airplanes, and canned food, drones were first borne from military invention. While the first “drones” have been around for 160 years (taking the shape of unmanned balloons strapped with explosives to bomb neighboring cities), one of the earliest experiments America took with this technology dates back to the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Unlike the killer bomb-balloons of 1849, this drone — which was really just a kite fitted with a camera by the U.S. military — was tasked with scouting Mexican positions, snapping photos of infantry and artillery emplacements and allowing American military officers a birdseye view of the battlefield without risking any lives.

Indeed, these troops were unknowingly making history, producing the very first aerial recon images. These top-down strategic maps prove invaluable even in modern warfare. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s and 70s, however, that drones started filling dedicated recon rolls.

So what have they been doing in the 60-some years in between?


The Sky’s the Limit

What made drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles (or UAVs) so attractive was one particular feature: remote control. Sure, drones are piloted by a human operator, but it’s the sheer fact that the operator is outside the vehicle that opens up to a realm of possibilities. Going back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and their dastardly balloons, the plan wouldn’t go over very well if the balloons still needed people in them.

Even with the rise of planes and their introduction to the battlefield in World War I, the human element remained a pesky logistics factor; aircraft had to have safety features for the sake of the pilot’s well-being. Naturally, they have to return to base after each mission. Get the plane to fly without a pilot inside, however, and the possibilities start to pop up, replacing life support systems with more armaments and equipment — or, in some cases, explosive payloads.

Enter the “air torpedo,” a World War I invention by Elmer Ambrose Sperry who was contracted by the U.S. Navy to develop new unmanned weaponry:

“During World War I, the Navy hired Elmer Ambrose Sperry, the inventor of the gyroscope, to develop a fleet of ‘air torpedoes,’ unmanned Curtis[s] biplanes designed to be launched by catapult and fly over enemy positions. A secret program was run out of a small outfield in central Long Island, New York. A New York Times report from 1926, when the secret was revealed, said that the planes were ‘automatically guided with a high degree of precision’ and after a predetermined distance were supposed to suddenly turn and fly vertically downward, carrying enough TNT to ‘blow a small town inside out.’”

While the effort and intent was in the right place, the program didn’t get too far. The war was over before most of the problems could be hammered out, namely unexpected crashes outside of their strike zone or drifting away “over the ocean, never to be seen again.” Luckily for the U.S. Navy, Hitler and World War II refreshed the need for new weapons technology.


Back in the Fight

From War to Work: Civilian Drones in the United States

Consolidated B-24 Liberator | Image source: Wikimedia

Unmanned planes made a comeback in preparation for Operation Anvil (the original name for Operation Dragoon) as remote-controlled B-24 bombers were tested for one-way trips to southern France. Their target: hardened German bunkers nigh impervious to standard bombing runs. Their payload: roughly 20,000 pounds of explosives.

While 10 tons of boom hurtling towards you in the shape of a rapidly-descending B-24 is terrifying all its own, there was one small problem trying to move all of that ordinance in such a big bird: they still needed pilots to at least get off the ground and have their course set at cruising altitude. These daredevils would then bailout while a “mothership” (a plane that followed the UAVs to keep them in order via remote control) would take over but much like the decades before, the program failed to impress.

Planes would fail to make it to their targets, either from loss of control or other mechanical failure. Even JFK’s older brother Joseph died in a related accident when the plane he was piloting exploded prematurely. Despite the tragedy (and others like it), it wasn’t without a tinge of irony. The intended target was actually a German weapons site where their scientists were working on UAVs of their own: rockets.


A New Kind of Warfare

If you think about it, that’s really what the military of all these countries were after; what are unmanned planes strapped with explosives on one-way flights but rudimentary rockets and cruise missiles? Indeed, the Germans were on to something with their own rocket designs.

As World War II wound down, the Cold War hinged upon ICBMs with nuclear payloads. Now, world governments could threaten to wipe humanity off the face of the earth with the push of a button.

While these weapons of mass destruction were intended for offensive purposes, some may argue they’ve made war safer. After all, mutually assured desolation was risky business, one that many — including military officers — wished to avoid. In essence, this stalemate kept major powers from declaring all-out war on one another. Granted, a bit of a backwards way to go about it, but it’s been effective thus far.

During the Cold War, UAV development stagnated as newer rockets, missiles, and the computing and electronic systems to guide them took the main stage. Drones (at least as we envision them now) were back in their original spot in America’s tool cabinet, acting as surveillance craft for covert scouting missions or ones too dangerous to risk human life.

From War to Work: Civilian Drones in the United States

MQ-1 Predator | Image source: Wikimedia

By the 1990s, drones started becoming more sophisticated, giving way to the designs and shapes we commonly think of today. With major improvements to electronics, drone design became more complex; the new equipment increased their flexibility and armament capacity to again become weapons of war.

It wasn’t until February of 2002 that the CIA used a Predator drone in a surgical strike near Khost in Afghanistan in an attempt to take out Osama bin Laden which, unfortunately, ended in failure. Instead, the strike had killed civilians gathering scrap metal and bin Laden would live at least for another nine years.

With similar incidents mounting across the Middle East and other areas where military drones are used, public questions began to circulate on the ethics of military UAVs, namely the dehumanization of operator and target. A drone pilot could be controlling the weapon while sipping on coffee in Colorado, but with a press of a button, could wipe out half of a small village on the other side of the world; where some would argue killing someone with a gun is less intimate (or easier to commit to) than with a knife, there’s virtually no emotional connection when the chosen weapon is fired thousands of miles away.

Where a shadow of skepticism looms over military drones and their effectiveness, light still shines on the future for this tech. Actually, the outlook for civilian and commercial drones is almost blinding. At least so long as munitions and explosives aren’t involved.


Mankind’s New Best Friend

Drones for civilian use in the United States first took to the skies in 2006, deployed in response to natural disasters and reach isolated pockets of survivors. The FAA authorized M/RQ-1 and M/RQ-9 drones to be used for this purpose and while it’s proven an effective measure since, the relief came a little too late.

When requests were first made in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the lack of FAA authorization and the skepticism of allowing drones in civilian airspace made it impossible to legally employ UAVs to help survivors. It wasn’t before long, however, that the government started to embrace this idea more and more.

From War to Work: Civilian Drones in the United States

U.S. Border Patrol MQ-9 Reaper | Image source: Wikimedia

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency also ordered a fleet of unarmed MQ-9 Reapers in 2006 to patrol the border with Mexico for drug smuggling and other illicit activity. The Wall Street Journal at the time wrote that, “in more than six months of service, the Predator’s surveillance aided in nearly 3900 arrests and the seizure of four tons of marijuana.” While the Reapers have been living up to their name, these border protection measures have grown ineffective over the years, with debate as to how useful the drone program really is. Just as drone technology advances, so too do countermeasures and the means to overcome them.

Outside of the government sector, however, drones are faring much better. Last holiday season, nearly a million civilian drones were purchased in the United States alone. In fact, the civilian drone industry is estimated to grow into a $5.6 billion USD industry by the end of 2020 with 32% annual growth.

With their versatility, it’s hard not to see why this industry is growing so fast: retail delivery drones are being tested in the United States and are already operational in some European countries; medical aid drones that can carry emergency supplies, equipment, (and soon, organs) to remote locations; survey drones are used for scientific research and remote monitoring, allowing us first glimpses at hidden animal activity like a whale feeding its calf in the wild. Of course, this isn’t even touching on drones just for the sake of fun, akin to toy gliders and remote-controlled planes.

There’s even drones being developed that you can ride inside, but between you and me, I’m a little skeptical on that one. After all, if the “U” in UAV stands for “unmanned,” what makes a passenger drone that can be controlled inside any different from a helicopter? Where some might say that’s just semantics, it’s questions like these as we try to define and regulate drones that become legislative stopping blocks. The legal waters for American airspace when it comes to civilian drones is murky at best.


A Bird on a Leash

With all of the applications drones seem to have, United States lawmakers are hesitant to use drones for business purposes. Certainly, civilian drone ownership isn’t outright illegal, but how they’re used is what makes things tricky. There’s nothing wrong with taking your drone out for a flight much like your grandparents were content with a kite and some string generations before. But unlike a kite, drones are much more maneuverable with direct electronic control, much to the user’s delight.

Unfortunately, having control over a machine and using it wisely are two different things, especially as incidents involving drone interference with emergency responders are not uncommon. Rubbernecking along the interstate to check an accident out is bad enough. Adding a bunch of curious drones zooming around a burning building is as equally annoying as it is dangerous.

To cut down on rogue (and irresponsible) drone use, there’s been an FAA rule since last December requiring civilian operators to register their drones before flying in civil airspace. In response, publications like The New York Times have been issuing guides to help ease into the responsibilities and expectations of drone ownership. To back up the legislation, anti-drone technology is also steadily on the rise, ranging from “cyber rifles” to laser weaponry to anti-drone drones (not to mention trained birds). Whether making or disabling them, there’s tons of business in drones, but what about drones in business?


Catching the Competition

Compared to the United States, other developed countries are further ahead in employing drones for commercial purposes. Germany’s DHL has been using its ‘Paketkopter’ to make small deliveries in mountainous regions for a few years now and China has just recently released civilian drone traffic legislation earlier this year.

The United States, while having multiple businesses eager to join in, has been caught up the details. For instance, retail and food delivery drones have been illegal, but delivery drones used for medical purposes are not.

By and large, recreational usage of civilian drones is permitted within FAA guidelines. These same guidelines, however, did not recognize most commercial drone usage until earlier this month. While larger companies such as Amazon and Google are still restricted, the new legislation opens up plenty of smaller scale ventures. Remaining optimistic, both companies have stated they hope to get their drone delivery services off the ground later next year, but “will require separate regulation.”


Changing the Game

With the new rules, drones can be used in rescue operations, bridge and utility inspections, and aerial photography as well as for farming, research, development, and education. While these rules don’t come into effect until later this August, the White House predicts that “unmanned aircraft could lead to $82 billion [USD] in economic growth by 2025 and support up to 100,000 jobs.”

Though the new legislation is a hefty 642 pages, some basic rules for commercial drone use boil down as follows:

  • Drone must weigh between 0.55 and 55 pounds (including equipment and cargo attached)
  • Drone can fly up to 400 feet high and up to 100 miles per hour, so long as it remains in sight of the operator and not over people.
  • Drone cannot fly at night unless equipped with special lighting; cannot fly within 5 miles of an airport, nor within the limits of Washington D.C. (for air traffic and security reasons)
  • Drone operator must be at least 16 years of age, have a remote pilot certificate, and report to the FAA if involved in any incident that results in serious injury or property damage

Even with this exciting news, America still lags behind other countries — though not without good reason. Both Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Senator Mark Warner (VA-D), while optimistic about the change, cite emphasis on striking “the right balance between innovation and safety.”

It will be interesting to see how these conversations continue, especially as more countries adopt the technology. Not to mention the population and physical size difference between Germany and China, how both nations (and others) apply commercial drones will undoubtedly set precedent for the rest to follow.

With only a few months left before American businesses can start participating in this grand social and technological experiment, where will you be when the next chapter in the history of drones (and, potentially, the world as we understand it) is written?


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